QR Codes or Bust: Experimenting with QR Codes at the Brooklyn Museum

Posted by admin on Jan 26, 2012

Editor's Note: The following is blog post by Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. It is reposted here based on two separate posts on the Brooklyn Museum blog with permission. 

A while back, I reported that we [Brooklyn Museum] were in the process of a trial period with QR codes.  We’ve just taken a look at the stats, so I’m giving a run down of what we’ve seen.  If I asked the Magic 8-Ball if we’d continue with QR in the New Year, I think the response might be anything from “outlook not so good” to “don’t count on it” or, possibly, “cannot predict now.”

I’ve long been a critic of QR Codes.  When I look around, I see low adoption rates, technical hurdles for end users and some really annoying uses in the marketing sector—who wants that? As critical as I am, there have been some really good uses in museums and I think we are starting to see a tide change in New York City. For starters, the city is using them on all the building permits, so you can learn more as you pass construction sites.

Implementation Considerations

When looking at a possible implementation at the Brooklyn Museum, there are considerations to think about—we’ve got a community-minded mission that takes accessibility very seriously and we are aware that a very large portion of our visitors don’t have the smartphones required to use the codes.  That said, we want to start looking at what this equation means for us and, as a result, we’ve just installed QR codes in the Museum as an experiment to see how visitors respond. We are evaluating several different types of uses. While we still expect use to be fairly low, we’ll be looking at metrics and comparing them to other types of mobile use, namely our mobile website and our mobile app—we are curious to see if pickup rate increases as we move to an on-demand system using readily off the shelf technology.

In the QR code trial, we want to make sure the codes do not create unnecessary confusion or exclusion for visitors and, to this end, we’ve created a mobile palm card to help explain things. To increase visibility, a code is printed on the back of our entrance tags. Scanning it takes you to a page that describes what scanning codes throughout the building will get you.

In general, our staff at the Visitor Desk is seeing increased QR awareness among visitors and a rise in demand for the mobile palm card we produced, but stats will help us tell the story. We put a code on the back of our entrance tags that served as an introduction what visitors might find behind QR codes throughout the building. Every visitor coming in the door gets one of these tags, but only 1.77% of visitors responded by scanning the code.

Implementation and Outcomes

In The Dinner Party and Luce Visible Storage [two long-term installations], you can use the QR to jump to mobile versions of our collections database.  Each of these galleries provides limited information on the walls and, instead, we ask visitors to use kiosks to retrieve information about objects. By installing QR codes, we are providing additional means to view that information via mobile, but no one is left out of the experience—if they don’t have the technology, they can use the computers instead.

We are also testing the idea of QR as an on-demand platform.  For the last year, our mobile game, Gallery Tag!, has been integrated into our mobile app, but its use has been quite low. While we have gotten good feedback from visitors who’ve played it, the visibility of the game buried within our mobile presence has made it difficult to find, so we are putting the game [solely] behind a QR code to see if it helps make the application more visible within the exhibition space.

Of the visitors that scanned the code on the entrance tags, an average 41% of those users (.728% of total visitors) scanned the tags that would let them mobile search The Dinner Party, Luce Visible Storage or play Gallery Tag.  At first glance this looks like a win, right?  Well, that’s true until you compare pre and post QR code use.  These numbers are a little tricky for various reasons, but when looking at Gallery Tag as an example we saw a five-fold drop in use….and five-fold is a very conservative extrapolation from the stats.

Lastly, we’ve created a poetry trail throughout the museum using the poems that Raj Arumugam composed using our collection online.  This takes community-generated content from the web and puts it next to the objects in the gallery, showcasing a community voice in the permanent collections.  We are interested to see if codes are scanned for individual objects and if visitors are interested in community generated content as another layer in the gallery. The question does remain—can this content be found?  QR codes are striking and catch the eye, but with 3000+ objects on view, it will be difficult to find the 30 codes sprinkled throughout the museum that reveal poems. This part of the trial may prove to give us information that is too limited.

Of the visitors that scanned the code on the entrance tags, an average 3.37% of those users (.059% of total visitors) scanned the codes that were placed on objects.  That may seem very low overall, but finding the codes we had placed on 30 objects out of the 3000+ on view, was a bit of a task—I’m honestly surprised the numbers were as high as they were.


So, I think what we end up with is simply a project that isn’t an overwhelming success or failure. QR use in the building is overall very low, with visitors seeming to favor application-like uses for it. However, compared to pre-QR code use, the use of those applications dropped significantly. This suggests that QR might be appropriate for special projects, but that we probably need to stay away from it as a baseline visitor amenity if we are to be at all inclusive about how we serve content.

Image used courtesy of flickr user Scott Blake 

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