One of the original aims of this project has always been to try to provide visitors to country houses with layered interpretation, ideally linking paper resources such as trails with digital resources online, such as videos, animations and supplementary text. We originally thought QR codes placed on an electrical heritage trail might be the way to do this, with each linking to a page on our website corresponding to a different room in the house and enabling visitors to access multimedia interpretative materials. The trail would of course also contain material about each room, and would include an explanation of the content the QR code would link to.
However, something that came out of the first project steering meeting on 18 June, and which has become clearer as I have researched more people’s experiences online, is that the QR code in the heritage sector seems to be a technology which has had its day. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say you don’t see so many of them around anywhere anymore. Feedback from projects at the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh has been largely negative, whereas other experiments, for example at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Museum of Inuit Art, Toronto and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading have been reviewed more positively. Overall reactions have been mixed.
Nevertheless, most of the experiences I have come across relate to museums, and not to country houses. A big difference between a museum and a country house is that, when designing a museum exhibition, you are free to utilise and organise the space available however you want. Displays, cases, boards, audiovisual presentation units and the like can be arranged however is most convenient. In a country house on the other hand, the priority tends to be preserving a certain atmosphere of authenticity in the rooms, and this limits curators and educators to stick close to their source material and avoid cluttering the space with too much interpretation.
It could be a bad idea to place too much emphasis on a technology which may already be looking outdated, especially if the resources we produce are to have a long shelf life. The content, however, and the idea of connecting the physical and virtual resources, is still key; as long as the interpretative materials remain available on the website then the gateway through which we make them accessible via the printed materials can be changed. For now though, I’m not sure there exists a better alternative to QR codes – practical within the scope and budget of this project – to accomplish this. In such cases I wonder: is there still a case to be made for QR codes?