QR Codes, Part 4: How can we use them in public history?

by Greg Shine, guest blogger

How can we use QR Codes in public history and historic site interpretation?

I have to give credit to one of my colleagues, Prof. Brett Oppegaard of Washington State University-Vancouver, for planting the seed for Fort Vancouver’s foray into QR Codes. We’re working together on an optimistic AR (augmented reality) project for mobile storytelling in the Village of Fort Vancouver, and Brett suggested some beta testing via QR codes. Since then, I’ve tested them on waysides, in buildings, and at special events. Although still in its infancy at Fort Vancouver, I’ve noticed some positives and negatives to using this technology.

Thus far, I think the benefits of using QR codes outweigh the challenges. Here are a few benefits:

Cost. As described above, the major costs associated with QR coding seem to lie in content development, not technical development. Staff can focus on crafting quality content rather than coding. Also, QR codes can be printed from a desktop to paper or stickers for pennies on the dollar. At our most recent Christmas at Fort Vancouver special event, I created ten QR Codes, printed them out on the staff printer, cut them out, and then taped them at various places at the fort. The majority of my time was spent on content -- pulling interesting factoids together that linked to the event and then creating a specific web page for each. That’s it.

Timeliness. Once a QR code is established (let’s say it links to a specific park web page), you only need update the webpage it links to, not the QR code itself. Here’s an example: The ten QR codes that I put up linked to pages with interpretive elements that were specific to the park’s Christmas event. Rather than take those codes down, I can simply change the content of those pages to feature something else, like an object found there archaeologically or a link to a specific quote or video of a ranger talk. This also makes QR codes great for information, too. A code on a visitor center door could link to different information daily to reflect park specific conditions, featured programs, etc., by updating the URL to which it links.

Supplemental interpretation & provocation
. These codes do not – and are not intended to – replace person-to-person interpretation. However, they are a wonderful resource for providing supplemental interpretation or a primary option to the folks who 1) might like to tour a site and learn at their own pace, or 2) can’t make a scheduled program. They are also a wonderful tool for provoking visitors into learning more about a site; we call this incremental hooking for interpretation. If a goal in interpretation is to provoke and help visitors connect to their own understanding of a site, then QR codes are a small but mighty tool on our workbench. At Fort Vancouver, we can tell folks that a certain building is reconstructed from the archaeological and historical record, but why not show them, too? A QR code can link to historic photos, historic documents, flash videos, text; even a 3D image of an artifact found right there onsite.

Demonstrating that we get it. By using QR codes and other developments in technology, we’re tapping into a growing audience that has long looked at government employees and programs as behind the curve. This is particularly evident here in Portland; our park is unique in that it sits in the middle of the Silicon Forest, one of the nation’s most tech-savvy metro areas, especially when it comes to smart phone applications. We feel that we really don’t have a choice but get it. One of NPS Interpretation maven David Larsen’s mantras is also ours: be relevant or be a relic. We feel that technology is one pathway toward relevancy.

Of course, there are also many challenges. Here are a few I’ve identified thus far:

Accessibility – in the broadest sense of the word. It is impossible for most park visitors to access QR codes without a smartphone. While they are continuing to drop in price, they are not cheap. In addition to smart phone purchase, you’ll also need a data plan and some type of application to read the codes. This can add up quickly. Please note, though, that mere possession of a smart phone does not ensure access to QR Codes. We’re lucky enough at Fort Vancouver to be a national park in an urban center; the majority of parks are not, and basic cell coverage – let
alone 3G or 4G coverage – is neither possible nor probable. Also, in light of the NPS’ amazing work in making the parks more relevant to a broader, more ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse audience, this technology has the potential to exclude and/or alienate our prime constituents.

Potential for overreliance.
Historic site managers may be blown away by QR code technology and may see opportunities for cost savings during these times of tight budgets, but I urge restraint. Our studies show what we’ve thought all along: that it isn’t an adequate replacement for other interpretive services. Visitors queried by Prof. Oppegaard, for example, still favor personal contact with park staff.

What other benefits and challenges do you see?