Beyond QR Codes

Can museum exhibits produce meaningful experiences for visitors? Can new technologies act as “light switches” that can lead to multiple pathways to content and information? What types of communities are museums trying to give these light switches to? These are just a few of the questions that were asked during a talk with exhibits experts from around the country last week at the Shedd Aquarium. The Chicago Museum Exhibitor’s Group, better known as CMEG, hosted the lecture, one of four throughout the year. The group aims to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas among people in the Chicago-land area involved in the development, design, and production of museum exhibits. Beyond QR Codeswas the title of this quarter’s talk, and I got the privilege to be a part of it!

Jellyfish from the special exhibition, Jellies, at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois

I need to be honest with you though – I’m not exactly a technology guru! I try really hard but I’ve never been the gal that you go to when your computer is malfunctioning or when your toaster is broken. Before this talk, I probably couldn’t even have told you what a QR code was! Despite this, I thought that the talk might be a new experience and a great networking tool. An exhibition developer from the Field Museum and I got a chance to explore the Shedd before the meeting and check out their temporary exhibition entitled Jellies. After being stung by a giant (yes, giant) jellyfish a few years ago, I was relatively proud of myself for stepping foot in the exhibit at all! The back-lighting for the cases was pretty impressive and made for some really wonderful photos, if I do say so myself!

Augmented reality using IPad technology, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After a light dinner, we got down to business. Three presenters Skyped in to talk about how technology can help increase learning experiences. For those of you that don’t know, QR codes (take a picture with your phone, get a bunch of info) become extremely popular in the museum world a few years ago and have since fizzled. Nancy Proctor, head of the new media initiatives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and manager of the blog Museum Mobile, framed technologies, such as QR codes, as a way to create learning opportunities that would otherwise not take place. The problem is that QR codes were never connected with the visitor experience. When it gets down to it, it shouldn’t be about the technology, it should be about the visitors and how to increase their learning experiences in museums. One big set of phrases that I took away from her talk was augmented reality and mixed reality. One example outside of the museum walls in the Just Add Art! app where users can integrate works of art into their every day life. Future uses could include tablet technology that allows additional artist information or picture detail to be added as “layers” onto already existing works. The trick is adding layers of content to make meaningful experiences, not informational overloads!

Katherine Milton, from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, discussed ways to make these technologies practical. Her hope is that new technologies can extend beyond the facts and enable an exchange of information that leads to inspiration, imagination, and transformational experiences. These new forms of audience engagement will utilize all parts of a museum and be more than a QR code on a wall. Engagement is the center of this approach, so that new generations can become enthralled by what museums have to offer them. A few projects that I found particularly interesting were This Label Needs You and The Curator Is In. Using social media as a way to connect museum staff with visitors from around the globe is definitely something I will take with me in my career.

example of a QR code that became popular in museums, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But what happens when you have NO MONEY! That’s what TJ Hicks, from the DuPage Children’s Museum, talked a bit about. Wouldn’t we all love to be working at the Field Museum or the Smithsonian where (though money is sometimes tight) grants are plentiful and resources can be tapped into for new technology. TJ was given the task of running a technology department with no budget at all – and taught us all a few tips to tech on a dime! Youtube and social media are definitively where it’s at. I could hear a collective sigh of relief from the emerging museum professionals in the room who were all thinking, “virtual reality?! I can barely get my institution’s  wifi to work!”. What I took from this talk is, yes – technology is fun and no – you won’t get it all right away. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get excited about potential ideas for the future. Was the QR code in museums a failure? No! Can we use it as a learning tool and take strides to better engage audiences with the technologies were choose to put into our museums? YES!


About catebay

Informal educator working in the world of art. Interests in public programming and community advocacy. Loves learning about people, collecting blue mason jars, and consuming Swedish fish.
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