Alaska State Museums Bulletin 54

Printable Version


Using QR Codes
Spotlight on Grant in Aid
ASM on the Road
Alaska Museums in the News
Professional Development/Training Opportunities
Professional Time Wasting on the Web

Using QR Codes for Good and Not for Evil

By Mary Irvine, Museum Protection and Visitor Services Supervisor

Alaska State Museum

This spring, Alaska State Museum staff realized we needed to reprint our rack cards.  We have a beautiful rack card and it’s worked well for us over the years, but our prices bumped up a bit this summer, and we needed to get the word out.

Just about this time, we were learning about QR codes.

“QR” stands for “quick response” and basically, QR codes are those pixelated little 1”x1” square design patterns that have been creeping into advertisements or promotional material over the last few years.

Typically, you see them in magazines.  I recently found one on a bunch of bananas I picked up at the store.  This photo shows nicely that QR codes are similar to bar codes (a set of black-and-white pixels that contain information), but look quite a bit different.

The bar code is on the left, and the QR code is the black-and-white loose-knit square of pixels on the right.

QR codes work in tandem with smart phones and tablets or iPads that have cameras.  Smart phone users can download any number of QR Code apps, which can then “read” the codes.  No-frills QR reader apps are free from the App Store.  I have two on my phone – “Red Laser,” and “QR Reader.”  They’re pretty much the same, the only reason I have two is in case one doesn’t work, then I have a backup.  Blackberries have a QR Code reader already built in.

Once you have a QR app on your smartphone, the next time you find a QR code that you are curious about, you can click on your app, scan the code, and you are quickly taken to wherever it is the QR code is set up for.  Usually you land on a small online place that tells you more about the product being vetted.

The first QR code I ever scanned, I was sitting on the tarmac in an Alaska Airlines jet waiting for take-off.  I was thumbing through their in-flight magazine, and saw one of these QR codes at the bottom of a full page advertisement for a certain wine.  Even though I’m not a big wine drinker, I got my phone out, clicked on the App Store, downloaded a free QR reader and scanned the code.  It took me to a particular part of the winery’s website, and soon I was wandering through lush photographs of their vineyards while waiting for my plane to take off.

It turns out that besides there being a lot of QR reader apps out there, there are also a lot of QR code writers (or generators) out there.  Many of them are free, which means that almost anybody can easily produce QR codes and slap them on stuff so that other people can swipe them and get directed to online content that you wish them to see. One QR code generator that a librarian friend recommended is called “Zebra Crossing.” My librarian friend likes this one because it promises not to capture users’ identity information and utilize it for evil.

After learning a little bit about these things, my coworker Lisa Golisek and I got intrigued enough to play around with generating a few codes ourselves.  We quickly realized that Zebra Crossing would allow us to create a QR code linking to a live map, like Google maps.  By inputting the museum’s precise latitude and longitude, people who scanned our QR code would be taken to a live map – with a blue dot representing you the patron, and a red corkboard pin representing the museum.  As the person walks or drives toward the museum, the blue dot moves, toward the red pin:

After you create a QR code online, you can save it on your own computer as a pdf, or other image file.  It was a short jump from this to asking our exhibits team – Paul Gardinier and Jackie Manning – who were massaging the graphics of our rack card to incorporate our new little high tech tool onto our rack card a few days before it went to the printer.

You can make QR Codes different sizes, they don’t have to be the little 1”x1” pixilated squares that seem to be the defaults, and you can even work your regular branding into them, as long as you keep the three foundational pillars that are necessary for some reason. There are many examples out there of QR codes that have a name or a logo built into the pixilated bar code area.

For our rack card, we went with the plain vanilla QR code graphic, shrunk just slightly to fit in with the aesthetics of the back of our card.

More cool uses

One neat trick that some people have used QR Codes for is calendaring. Say we choose to put a QR Code on our next flyer. The user has a reader on their phone, they swipe our QR code, and their phone instantly captures the details of our event, and adds it to the calendar on that user’s phone. Sweet!

Another neat trick is that some people have put QR codes on their business cards. Seems like duplication? Not really – if you swipe the QR code, your phone instantly captures all their info into your “contacts” file on your phone, which it can then sync to your home computer when you sync your phone again.

Cautionary notes

Three important things: First, it’s important to make the page that somebody lands on after they swipe your QR code, mobile-friendly. Nobody wants to use a hip technology only to be brought to a blog, say, that doesn’t display well on their mobile device, or your boring old website that they have to navigate.

Second, you should probably tell people what they stand to gain by swiping your QR code.  The Sheldon Jackson Museum recently did a great job with this, and simply, by putting an asterisk above the code design, and the simple phrase, “*scan for map.”  If you don’t do this, folks might be less than motivated to scan your code, since they don’t know what’s in it for them.

Third, it’s best not to go too crazy with sophisticated stuff at your QR URL … for two reasons: first, this stuff still takes up bandwidth, and people will be mad at you for eating up their data plan when all they wanted was a little more information on some cool stuff. This might be mitigated if you are in a Wi-Fi environment, but most places aren’t.  Second, unless you are targeting the world’s most patient people, normal people need instant gratification, and you’ll lose them if you make them wait while the video you want them to see or the scholarly article you want them to read downloads.

If you want to learn more, here is Nina Simon’s excellent (and short) article critical of QR usage in museums:

For absolutely cutting edge stuff, turn to the Brooklyn Art Museum’s articles about such things, such as where they really crunch the data.  This museum is almost always exquisitely in tune with its audiences, and they make a good point about wanting to err on the side of not leaving anybody out of the experience due to socio-economic factors.  They say frankly that “a very large portion of our visitors don’t have the smartphones required to use the codes.”  They’ve installed QR codes that do various things; one excellent use is to jump to mobile versions of their collections database.  As somebody who helps interpreters learn the ropes, I can see ample application of that in our galleries.  However, the Brooklyn Museum is quick to point out that anybody can use the stand-alone computer kiosk in their galleries to access the same information.  The Brooklyn Art Museum has also created a “Mobile Palm Card” gallery guide that explains QR codes and why and how they are sprinkled throughout their institution.

A growing number of museums are putting QR codes near or on some of their interpretive labels.  For example, you can check out the Fort Wayne museum.  Their thrust is simply to augment the experience visitors already have in the museum.  It’s fun to think about ways to use QR codes inside the museum… we generally frown on (okay, I personally loathe) visitors who use their cell phones inside the museum, but even I admit there might be a call (sorry) for them if the technology is geared toward deepening a person’s meaningful engagement with the objects, and not just phoning a friend.

Something QR codes might really help with is language barriers that visitors from other countries run into.  It’s possible to imagine QR codes that take the user to foreign language interpretation (QR codes in blue, for example for French language interpretation in your museum, QR codes in green for Japanese).  Knowing one’s audience might help to narrow the options.  However at the State Museum, we routinely see Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French and German visitors … and I don’t envision us posting 5 QR codes next to each interpretive label.  However, if visitors could be instructed to scan a QR code at the front desk and receive a “Top Ten” list of objects at our museum, interpreted in their language, well, that might be an amazing thing.  Still, if it’s just a medium over which to provide an audio tour, it’s a lot of work on the front end with a pretty unquantifiable product on the far end.  Plus, it risks connecting the visitor more with their beloved phone than the objects they’ve come to see. Philosophically, there is something to be cherished about those moments visitors struggle to understand the objects that speak to them, without benefit of a ready and pat answer to their inquiry.  (But that is another and as yet, unwritten, article.)  In an over-the-top experiment that I don’t even want to know how it works: developers have designed single QR codes that will, when swiping them, decipher the language that your smart phone is set to, and then bring you to the Wikipedia site for that object, in the language your phone is set to.

What’s next for QR Codes and Museums?

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis offers “QRpedia codes” for many of their objects.  Scans of these codes take you to articles about the museum’s objects posted on Wikipedia.  Museums that opt for this use typically have a “QRpedia expert” on staff to help volunteers write up their research on an object and post it for them on Wikipedia.  Check it out in this funny video.  Some of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ more specific/unique Wikipedia articles have upwards of 60% of their total page view traffic coming from QR scans, as opposed to users browsing and finding it the usual way a search progresses.

I suspect we’ll see an increase in self-guided tours, and maybe scavenger hunts for kids who have access to an adult with a smart phone.  QR Code usage is rising in the U.S.  Actual day-to-day usage of the codes varies markedly.  From random chats with museum visitors, we’re finding that there is a good understanding of QR code logistics in students as young as 6th grade, and college students take them pretty much for granted.  Folks older than me are aware of them, but may not be sure how they work.  Like any technology, there’s a novelty to it that’s intriguing, but whether it has staying power is an open question.

This brings me to my final point.  I’ve been curious to know how long QR generators will continue to host the QR codes they help users generate.  In essence, how long a QR code will remain active.  Nobody seems to know the answer to this.  Even generator sites that charge for the flashier set ups or hosting an actual landing site URL for the user don’t make promises.  Still, this isn’t a solid reason not to have some fun with QR codes.

As one QR code reviewer reminded readers, it was 1943 when IBM’s chairman miss-predicted “a world market for maybe five computers.”  See  This article also has a solid list of QR readers and QR generators.

Now excuse me, while I scan the QR code I posted at the very beginning of this article.  I’m going to learn how to turn bananas into something that has the exact texture of soft serve ice-cream.  Happy QR coding!

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Question:  I would like information on how to preserve a huge folk art wooden, painted sculpture.  It’s a “cigar store Indian” about 48” tall and 18’ at the base.  It seems to be cracking with age and I would like to know how to prevent further damage.

ASM:  As you can imagine diagnosing what is wrong with your object is not easy without knowing a lot more about it.  In the conservation world we often say “it depends, it depends, it depends.”

I imagine you have some radial cracking in the wood.  Here is an entry on Wikipedia that explains why this happens:

“The chief difficulty experienced in the drying of timber is the tendency of its outer layers to dry out more rapidly than the interior ones. If these layers are allowed to dry much below the fibre saturation point while the interior is still saturated, stresses (called drying stresses) are set up because the shrinkage of the outer layers is restricted by the wet interior (Keey et al., 2000). Rupture in the wood tissues occurs, and consequently splits and cracks occur if these stresses across the grain exceed the strength across the grain (fibre to fibre bonding).”

My guess is that most of the damage that you are seeing occurred a long time ago and the rate of cracking has slowed down almost to a halt.  If there is fresh new cracking (as evidenced by bright looking wood at the terminus of the cracks) it could be caused by a change in the climate that the object is accustomed to.  I get a lot of calls from people who retire from Alaska down to Arizona and wonder why their carved masks and totems are actively cracking again.

Example of both new and old cracking on a totem pole.  The new cracking appears lighter in color

Here is the bad news:  There is not a whole lot you can do about it either way.  This is a force of nature and the stress that is set up by the drying process can only be controlled, not stopped.  We do that in the museum world by maintaining a stable environment via a very expensive climate control system.  What you probably have in your home is the equivalent of a desert in the winter and a swamp in the summer, so there are these periods where the object is losing moisture and periods where it is gaining moisture.  This movement has caused the cracking and will continue to cause cracking until all of the stress that can be relieved is relieved.  As I said earlier, you may have already arrived at that point and you are seeing old damage.  If you could get in your time machine and travel back to when the sculpture was first made and then make sure that it dries slowly and remains in a stable climate up until the time when you bought it then you could prevent those cracks from ever happening.

If I am wrong about this and you are seeing a lot of recent activity with regards to cracking and paint loss  then there might be something else going on and you should have a conservator look at it.  If the old damage is bothering you for aesthetic reasons, then a  conservator who specializes in objects conservation, can fill and inpaint it so that it has more of an overall harmonious look.  You can find out more about how to contact a conservator by checking out the website of the American Institute for Conservation

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Spotlight on Grant in Aid

FY2013 Grant-in-Aid Awards

The Alaska State Museum has announced the awarding of 23 grants totaling $105,600 to Alaska museums and cultural centers for museum projects around the state.

The following awards were made:




Internship grants $
Pioneer Air Museum, Fairbanks Internship program


Simon Paneak Museum, Anaktuvuk Internship program


Regular grants:
Ahtna Heritage Foundation, Glenallen Exhibit lighting upgrade


Alaska Museum of Nat. Hist., Anchorage Exhibit  and storage upgrade


Alpine Historical Park, Sutton Foundations for large objects


Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak Exhibit Upgrade Project


Bald Eagle Foundation, Haines LED Exhibit lights


Baranov Museum, Kodiak Permanent exhibit development


Cordova Historical Society, Cordova Exhibit design for new museum


Juneau Douglas City Museum, Juneau Education collection organization


Pratt Museum, Homer Internships


Sheldon Museum, Haines Cataloging collections


Alaska Jewish Museum, Anchorage PastPerfect purchase and training


Carrie McLean Museum, Nome Computer laptop for collections


Eagle Historical Society, Eagle UV window blinds for exhibits


Beringia Museum and Science Ctr, Nome Website and PastPerfect upgrade


Kodiak Maritime Museum, Kodiak Cataloging  museum artifacts


Pioneer Memorial Park, Fairbanks Mounting historic Photographs


Port Alexander HS, Port Alexander Laptop collections mgmt. upgrades


Sealaska Heritage Institute, Juneau collections internship


Seward Community Museum, Seward Archival packing materials


Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, Fairbanks Past Perfect purchase and training


Maxine and Jessie Whitney Museum, Valdez Archival Framing of prints


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 ASM on the Road

Scott Carrlee, Curator of Museum Services, traveled to Skagway to work with two conservation interns, Nicole Peters and Katie Bonanno, who are cleaning and conserving the Rapuzzi collections of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park.  While in Skagway, Scott was able to use the Bruker portable XRF for a public program called, “What’s It Made of, and How Do You Take Care of It.”  The XRF analyzer is especially good at determining the content of metals, such as in jewelry and there were several surprises of jewelry that contained more precious metals than previously thought.

Scott Carrlee examines family heirlooms with a portable XRF

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Alaska Museums in the News

Extreme Patriotism: New Museum Celebrates Alaska’s Veterans,0,5116358.story

Kodiak Museums Do Well Competing for State Grants

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Professional Development/Training Opportunities

The George Washington University’s Distance Education Graduate Certificate Program in Museum Collections Management and Care application deadline is August 1, 2012.

The graduate certificate is earned completely online and is designed for those working or volunteering in museums with collections management responsibilities. The courses are ideal for those either lacking prior formal museum studies training or desiring a refresher in the topics of legal and ethical issues, collections management and preventive conservation.

For more information, please contact Mary Coughlin at

or visit their website:

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 Professional Time Wasting on the Web

A new short film in now available online about the St. Lawrence Island Yupik ceremonial gut parka, featuring community members Estelle Oozevaseuk, Branson Tungiyan and Elaine Kingeekuk.

Nine fascinating short films on the Philippine community in Kodiak are now available for viewing through the Baranov Museum’s YouTube channel

This winter social media Artist Ze Frank will take over a gallery of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art.  Read more about it here

Or watch a cool TED talk Ze gave in 2010

Gold Rush Nuggets Stolen From Museum of Natural History

Video interview with Paper Conservator Sam Sheesley on preserving the legacy of Sailor Jerry, legendary tattoo artist

Economic Sustainability Some Trends to Watch

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3 Responses to Alaska State Museums Bulletin 54

  1. Great piece on QR codes – thanks so much

  2. Katherine Ellis says:

    Glad to have this info online and easily accessible. Also, fascinating piece on QR codes. Thanks, Mary Irvine!!

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