QR Codes & Content

Planning a blog post in response to Seb Chan’s look at QR codes, I found myself stopped by WordPress’ encouragement to post a photo or video instead of a “long post.”  The concept of a short post makes sense — there’s lots of stuff on the web, and the greater your word count, the less likely people are to engage.  There is a connection to QR codes in there…let’s find it.

A great fear of mine in the world of information retrieval (at present, in the realm of the museum) is the loss of content in promoting engagement.  The Getty Museum in Brentwood, California would love for every patron to be mesmerized by the exhibits, and want to gain as much information as possible.  This is not the case, and while the Getty has the luxury of a great endowment to go with a great collection, a number of smaller museums lack the collection and the resources, and thus engaging patrons in the museum as a whole is vital to survival. To thrive, the museum must put energy and resources into bringing people through the doors, and creating a participatory atmosphere rather than an archaic mausoleum.

To look at whether or not we sacrifice content in the name of engagement, we must determine what the role of the museum is.

Traditionally, that role has been to house, display, organize and provide information and context about various artifacts — artistic, historical, scientific, etc.  Like a library, a museum was a place for hushed tones, quiet footsteps, and thoughtful yet respectful contemplation.  With the advent of global telecommunications, the images and icons housed in museums could be accessed throughout the world, meaning that the stated role of the museum (housing, display, organization, information) could be provided in a virtual setting, allowing the patron to explore on their own time and with their own interest.  A great deal of the work in museum studies today looks at increasing the museum’s footprint in web spaces, and opening up more content in digital realms.

The Internet will not kill the museum; like Berger said, the museum is now a place of pilgrimage.  The experience of seeing Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum creates different individual meaning than viewing the piece online.  Berger talks about this — art was designed to be hung in a location, but a picture on a screen in your home is surrounded by your things…changing the interaction of the piece and thus making a difference in the artist’s intention versus the patron’s created meaning.

What amazes me most about museum websites like the Getty and the Art Institute of Chicago is not that their images exist free in cyberspace (Yonachi Benkler discusses the fallacy of copywritten information in his book The Wealth of Networks), but the lack of detail given to each piece in a collection.  Hypertext makes the ability for research and discussion so much greater than in a real space, yet the paragraphs on the art provide no greater insight than the write-up in the real museum space.  It is as if a fear of a “long post” will drive people away, despite people having come specifically to see this piece!

If we sequester art and information into keywords and labels, and then provide no greater context to move past those keywords and labels, we do a disservice to meaning.  Edward Hopper had a well-documented purpose for creating his art; Nighthawks is a piece representative not only of his work but of city life, art and culture at the time, and that meaning deserves a place in the museum, a place larger than “diner.”

This is not to say that individual responses to art are invalid; that is not at all the case.  An interesting study would be to provide comment sections on pages in museum directories, where aficionados, laypeople and children could provide their interpretations of the work.  Again, however, it is vital for the original intention to be provided as well, in such a way that interested individuals can gain more information.  One existing iteration is the QR code, a square barcode that mobile device users can scan to be directed to a webpage.  Used primarily in business, QR codes have found their way into museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  While the QR codes promise interactivity, researchers have shown few individuals utilizing the codes, and the codes seem more focused on creating a feeling of interconnectivity rather than connecting individuals or providing greater content depth.

For museums to thrive, a great number of individuals need access and interest.  That means that a great number of individuals will have different expectations and experiences in the space, either real or virtual.  A bricks and mortar space can provide some options to engage individuals along various interest levels, but a digital space should be able to do a much greater job.  Providing different realms or layers depending on experience and interest should be the next step.

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