QR Codes: How Can We Use Them?

This is part four of a four part series by Greg Shine introducing QR Codes as digital media tools for helping visitors better connect to and understand the significance of historic sites like Fort Vancouver. Greg prepared this series as part of the curriculum for the annual NPS-PSU Public History Field School.


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

I have to give credit my colleague I mentioned in Part 2, Prof. Brett Oppegaard of Washington State University-Vancouver, for planting the seed for Fort Vancouver’s foray into QR Codes.

We’ve been working together since 2008 on the Fort Vancouver Mobile Project at the Village unit 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:



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 a Christmas at Fort Vancouver special event, for example, 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 pulling interesting factoids together that linked to the event and then creating a specific park webpage for each. That’s it.



Once a QR code is established (let’s say it links to a specific park webpage), 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 the Portland/Vancouver Metro Area. 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 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 or mobile device.

While they are continuing to drop in price, they are not cheap. In addition to smartphone purchase, one will 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 smartphone 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.

Potential for innefficient use

As with any emerging media, it is possible to become too enamoured with it and to employ it haphazardly. The potential for QR Code placement in parks is staggering, so it is important to utilize proper planning approaches to identify the where, why, and hows of using them. Renmember, they are but one tool in your digital toolbox.

A park's LRIP is a great place to start. Some, like ours, identify specific areas and themes for the testing of digital media.

Also, we don't forget to employ the Interpretive Process Module (IPM) that we discussed in class. All NPS Interpretation products --be they brochures, guided tours, or podcast episodes -- utilize the IPM to maximize the connection with the audience.

What other benefits and challenges do you see?


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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