Blog Archives

Are QR Codes in Exhibits a Good Idea?



If you’re thinking of including QR codes in an upcoming exhibit as a portal for the students (in the streaker-stroller-student visitor continuum), this post is for you. NC’s own Michael Scott, Curator of Education at the High Point Museum has added comments from his past experience at the NC Museum of History to a fascinating discussion of the QR code issue that appeared on the AAM Registrar’s Committee listserv last week.

The QR codes that we used for the Watergate exhibit saw very low use…the highest usage numbers were for the codes at the edges of the exhibit and very little for the ones inside the exhibit.There [are] also some QR codes outside of the museum for garden plants. One of them had a song attached to it and had received higher use than some of the others, but it was still a low number.

[However,] I still like them. Not a lot of institutions can afford to buy devices or to build an app or to even redesign a full web site to be mobile friendly, but they can still link to a page either on their servers or to something that they have stored elsewhere online. There is a large bar of entry to using them (device, wifi, time, etc…) but I think that just means that whatever you’re wanting to link to needs to be very compelling material. Some information just might not be [attractive] enough for a QR code and not a high enough priority to be in the physical exhibit. Until the use of NFC/RFID becomes more widely used, I see the QR code as really the only tool available to [provide more in-depth information at the point of viewing]. Generally, it think that it’s a matter of finding a balance between content, access, and resources available to an institution. For the same cost (time, money, etc..) as generating a QR code that links it to a video you shoot on a iPhone that’s hosted on Youtube, what other options are there?

Tracey Berg-Fulton, Collections Database Associate & Provenance Researcher at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, is more critical of QRs:

Let me be the anti-QR code curmudgeon here. Think about the last time you scanned a QR code? If you can’t remember, or you don’t have an app to do so, that should tell you something. As an iPhone addict, I haven’t scanned a QR code in…maybe three years? The last time I did it was because I was forced to in order to get the information I needed, and then the connectivity was miserable and the experience was ho-hum. If the institution [which] created this situation had just provided a short URL, I would have just opened my browser and gone there, without having to:

  1. Think about what I’m going to use for QR scanning
  2. Think about where that QR code is going to take me (and is that page safe to look at- nightmare scenariohere)
  3. Decide that yes, I want to take the time to connect to wifi, accept the wifi policy, connect, scan, go to the site, and then dig for whatever it is I’m looking for.
  4. Do all of the above.

QR codes work brilliantly for machines. They’re designed for machines to read quickly. Their applications for humans are, in my personal opinion, small. There’s a lot of maintenance that goes in to making them, a lot of vigilance needed to maintain good links to content, not to mention the creation of the content itself, and the hurdles of bad wifi- particularly if your building is a granite or marble bunker. Let’s add to that the hurdles of privileging content to those who have access to smartphones, and are savvy enough to understand the “scan QR code, get info” mechanics (of course, having on-campus devices to loan helps lower that barrier, but there’s another thing you need to maintain and track and charge, and train non-native users on how to get the content from the QR code).

Tracey suggests creating a web site with additional content and including a shortened URL on the exhibit labels.

You can also use an app to do this if you have one, but that requires a lot of hoops with iOS/android development, and again pushes out those edge cases. A responsive web site works on any device (tablet, phone, laptop, desktop) and can give more people more access (and provide loaner devices to get more people more access). Thus ends my rather long winded treatise against QR codes.

Nathan Stalvey, Director of the Clarke County Historical Association in Berryville, VA, reported mixed results when testing the effectiveness of QRs at the Louisville Slugger Museum.


  • Tracking numbers:  “QR codes let you see what people are the most interested in, which objects draw more attention, where people are coming from and what devices they are using.”
  • Shortening label text:  “Studies have shown that beyond a certain word count, people move on.  ([Microsoft] recently did a study that shows the average human attention span is now 8 seconds, one second less than a goldfish and four seconds less than five years ago).”


  • Lack of meaningful insights: “What kind of people use their devices for QR scans?  Does it really identify what you want to know about your audience?”
  • Logistical problems: “If the QR code is too small, people will lose interest if it is difficult to scan.  If it is too large, it can be distracting.  You would have to find a balance.  Too many QR codes in an exhibit can be overwhelming.”

In the end, Stalvey’s museum gave up on QR codes, in reaction to the low proportion of users to visitors. Tablets that the museum provided were more effective. “The app was built with layers and did not need a wireless connection.  It was incredibly time consuming for IT to put together, but it was rare to NOT see people using those devices.  We also had them locked so that was the only thing people could access.”

Has your institution experimented with QR codes? When was the last time you used one?


Collections Access: Open the Door Wider

Thanks to museum audience engagement expert, Nina Simon, for first posting this opinion piece by C2C team member, Adrienne Berney, in last week’s Museum 2.0 blog.

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

NC Museum of History 1988.39.4

Followers of Museum 2.0 are well versed in new ideas for audience engagement and committed to opening up their institutions to increase public access. But this is not always the first priority for professionals in the museum field. Some collections stewards, steeped as they are in professional artifact-protection standards, are reluctant to shift toward the more open version of institutional access that engagement advocates promote. Do these two directives and perspectives have to be at odds? Can collections access be a way to entice new audiences?

Recently, several subscribers to the RCAAM (Registrar’s Committee of AAM) listserv posted concerns about professional photographers and museum visitors taking photographs of objects on exhibition. One announced her intention to seek legal recourse against a photographer, and another warned that in the past her institution’s legal council had dissuaded that museum from seeking action. “Unfortunately,” that subscriber advised, there are no legal avenues to stop visitors from photographing objects or images in the public domain in public spaces where photography is allowed.

To me, this seems both discouraging and ungenerous to visitors. I stirred up a debate by raising the question “why not allow access?” I believe the museum field as a whole should do more to encourage reproductions of collection objects and images, regardless of whether reproducers hope for profits. I then encountered strong push-back on the listserv, with one subscriber calling my fitness for my job title, “collections care trainer,” into question. Respondents flexed their protective muscles to limit access to the artifacts they have pledged their professional lives to preserving. I’m listing most of the concerns voiced in that debate so that readers can assess the severity of each obstacle and can help generate ideas for surmounting them, toward a goal of more open collections access.

  • Increased risks for deterioration: most of us are familiar with the agents of deterioration and understand the varying risks to collections materials that access poses, especially as a result of increased handling and light exposure. Digitization can help offer safe access to collections.
  • Staff time: allowing access can be labor intensive for those in charge of collections. Institutions may not want to invest work hours into providing access for visitors who may then turn around and sell reproductions for their own profit. But if collection reproductions are a potential cash cow, then why aren’t more institutions pursuing product creation? Some history museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Sandy Springs Museum , have implemented innovative programs inviting artists into storage and galleries to create new works with collection items. But what about the potential creator who happens into an exhibit, gets an idea, and takes a picture? What if objects are already on exhibit and their reproduction involves no additional staff time? Should the museum impose a fee on reproducers or limit their pursuits in other ways? Keep in mind that enforcing limited-access policies requires significant staff time too, along with possible legal fees.
  • Copyright infringements: A large portion of historical collections are in the public domain. The Library of Congress advises collection users to go through a risk assessment process for each image they seek to reproduce. The LOC provides open access as a public service and the user assumes whatever risks may be involved in reproduction. Why can’t all collecting institutions take this position?
  • Misrepresentation of the artifact: I’m not sure what this means, perhaps reproducing only a portion of an artifact or splicing its image with another. If the reproducer includes a reference to the original source, does that offset the concern or increase it? In the case of documents, historians regularly argue about the meanings of various passages. If a scholar misrepresents a document, it’s his/her reputation on the line, rather than the repository’s. Why should museums arbitrate or otherwise limit creative vision?
  • Relatedly, poor quality images of artifacts in collections may harm the reputation of the museum and do a disservice to the original donor. In a footnote in her Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Malaro mentions that a museum might not want to be listed as the source of an image in certain reproduction applications for fear of appearing to endorse the product or its creator. A risk assessment may help clarify the danger: Is it riskier (in terms of failing to fulfill a museum’s mission) to allow access, with the potential for audiences to generate poor quality products, or riskier to keep tight control over collection materials? Can you think of any cases where a reproduction harmed an institution housing the original?
  • Contractual issues or donor restrictions: These are red flags for placing an artifact on exhibit or an online database. Experts advise museums against accepting restricted donations, and they are rare in history museums. The most likely donor restrictions prescribe access and call for “permanent exhibition.” In addition, some museums have worked with native tribes or other descendant groups to establish access guidelines for sensitive anthropological materials. Do you know of other donor contracts or restrictions (besides copyright) that would allow the display of an artifact and disallow its reproduction?
This image, created by artist Courtney Bellairs by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection, was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum's gift shop for the duration of the related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Artist Courtney Bellairs created this image in 2013 by photographing an object in the Sandy Springs Museum collection. It was for sale as a limited edition giclee print in the museum’s gift shop during a related exhibition and remains for sale via the artist.

Given that public and non-profit private institutions hold collections in the public trust, and that a large portion of collections (at least in history museums) are public domain materials, and that most donors give with the expectation of preservation and access for perpetuity, museum professionals should have a wide range to engage the public with collections. Allowing for exceptional cases where limited access would be necessary, can’t most of the above concerns be managed within an over-arching open-access approach to collections?

Without broad access, why should any community or institution go to the trouble and expense of preserving artifacts? Visitation has decreased significantly at historic sites and institutions since the 1980s and yet artifact-featured forms of entertainment like collector reality television shows and auctions have proliferated. Potential audiences feel connections with artifacts, so why don’t they participate in or support collecting institutions more often?  The Rijksmuseum of the Netherlands sets an exciting example by providing high quality collection images online and encouraging product creation. By allowing open access for creative reproduction, I suspect institutions could become more welcoming for those groups, and collections can function more fully as relevant and engaging resources.

How has your institution balanced collection concerns with its efforts to engage audiences? Do you view collections as a problematic juggernaut to avoid, or an indispensable resource base, or both? How can we safely steer the reflexive “no” toward a “probably” and open the door to more collections access?

Thanks to Allison Weiss, Executive Director of the Sandy Springs Museum, John Campbell, Collections Section Chief of the NC Museum of History, and RCAAM listserv respondents for their contributions to this post.

Behind-the-Scenes Tours

AcklandStorageHas your institution ever tried or even considered storage area tours? Recently, there was a spirited discussion about this topic on the RCAAM listserv (Registrar’s Committee of the American Alliance of Museums). Comments revealed serious considerations and a range of opinions about the activity.

Pros:                                                                                    Cons:

Additional access to your collection                                  Security risk

Increased public understanding of the time                     Staff time requirements                       and expense of collections care

Several years ago a panel of security experts produced” Suggested Practices For Museum Security As Adopted by The Museum, Library and Cultural Properties Council of ASIS International AND The Museum Association Security Committee of the American Association of Museums” (Revised June, 2008).  The guideline asserts that storage tours are an additional security risk for collections and recommends against them. Where educational tours are necessary, the document recommends a written policy defining the safeguards to be taken and the responsibility of each person assigned to the tour. The policy should:

  •  limit the size of the tour to no more than 25 maximum for large rooms with a staff member assigned for every 7-8 people. Smaller groups are advisable for small spaces or those with small or especially valuable items.
  • address allowing members of the tour or class to leave to go to the restroom without an escort and what to do if someone becomes ill and needs to be escorted out of the room.
  • prohibit the use of cameras in collection storage where security equipment or procedures might be photographed.
  • provide a holding area for attendees’ personal belongings. Parcels carried by members of a tour should not be permitted in collection storage. In one instance, museum staff put belongings on a cart inside the door to the vault. “We let them know that their items are safe behind locked doors and that we ask them to do this, as neither we nor they want to accidentally knock something off a shelf.”

Do storage tours raise money? Responses indicate that tours do not generate monetary donations (even when wealthy guests come through)but do prompt offers of objects for donation. Several museums charge to take these tours, so they can become a revenue source. (Several charge $15-$25/ person.)

Is there an effective compromise to satisfy both security and access concerns?

  • One museum accomplished this by escorting visitors along the front of the large storerooms, where they could look down the long rows of shelves. The end section of each row had one or more particularly interesting objects stored on it, and the “tour guide” would be prepared with a talking point for each.
  • Another recommendation from is to pull artifacts from storage for a program to explain various collections care principles, especially the costs and labor involved in providing appropriate storage. This format works well for one professional who found that tour participants are too visually overwhelmed to focus on collections care messages while in storage.
  • A third compromise is to post photos of collections storage on your institution’s social media sites (eliminating, of course, any sensitive security information).

What lessons have you learned about storage tours at your institution? Do you know of any other strategies to address the disparate goals of security and access?

Thanks especially to Lana Newhart-Kellen, Collections Manager & Registrar at Conner Prairie; Lisa Kay Adam, Curator and Registrar of the Museum of South Texas History; Malia Van Heukelem, Preservation Management Specialist, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library; Janice Klein, Collections Consultant; and Wayne Phillips, Curator of Costumes & Textiles, Louisiana State Museum for their contributions to this post.

Proceed with Caution: Neoprene’s Preservation Prospects

Recently the High Point Museum received a potential donation. “SesquiWhoo” is a large, owl costume, awkwardly shaped for collections storage. In 2009 the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s costume designer created the piece to be the mascot suit for High Point’s 150th anniversary. City officials named the character “SesquiWhoo,” a play on the term sesquicentennial. Although SesquiWhoo may be eye-catching and fun in a future exhibit, the costume poses several preservation challenges. In addition to the difficulties that the costume’s size and shape present, its primary material—neoprene—has questionable properties.

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber, now commonly used for both wet suits and laptop covers. Concerned about neoprene’s stability in long-term storage, Museum Registrar, Corinne Midgett, posted a query about neoprene’s preservation prospects on the list-serve for the Registrar’s Committee of AAM. Expert respondents warned that the material would off-gas, emitting acidic or sulfuric vapors that may harm nearby artifacts, as it ages. Additionally, they predicted it would harden over time and loose elasticity and warned that heat and UV radiation could accelerate the material’s deterioration. Storage recommendations included isolation, cold temperatures, and regular changes of packing materials.

The museum plans to proceed with accessioning the costume. Can SesquiWhoo be preserved effectively for perpetuity? Check out its size and shape. What suggestions can you make to support this piece in storage? Short of buying a large refrigerator unit, what strategies can High Point Museum staff use to isolate and chill this piece?

Thanks to Corinne Midgett for the inspiration and information to create this post.