Life & Death of QR Codes in Museums


As the digital landscape in the museum space continues to evolve, we’re faced with the ongoing question of how to better serve the visitor. It’s sometimes difficult to navigate through the myriad options; deciphering what is merely a shiny object -vs- what is sustainable and will stand the test of time.

At Cuseum, we’re talking to dozens of museums and visitors each week. We’re often hearing stories about how QR codes didn’t work and often answering questions related to them. To help answer many of QR code related questions, and explore the conversations of the past few years, we were inspired to write one big post to provide a thorough resource and (hopefully) settle this debate for good - so, here we go!

QR Codes in Museums

Early museum experimentation with QR codes served to improve visitor’s ability to quickly and easily pull up extended information about a physical object by scanning a QR code with their own smartphone.


The QR code was often positioned near or on the object label. On paper, this approach sounded simple, and many museums jumped on board with a positive outlook about the potential.

One of the earliest examples in the US was back in 2009, when the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh implemented QR codes to direct visitors to online resources with more information about the objects on view.


The Erarta, the largest private museum of contemporary art in Russia, used QR codes to provide visitors with more information and even an option to purchase reproductions of the art on display directly from their phone.

The Brooklyn Museum has utilized QR codes over the years and has shared their findings and hesitations publicly.


At the height of QR codes, giants like The Smithsonian, British Museum, The Getty, LACMA, Cleveland Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, V&A, National Museum of China and countless others incorporated QR codes.

At the time, the appeal of QR codes was seemingly clear.

Fusion Research & AAM’s 2012 Mobile In Museums Study highlighted the popularity of QR codes across American museums.

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 4.14.33 PM.png

One year later, a 2013 study conducted by the Museums Association revealed that 22% of UK museums were using QR codes in their exhibits, with the percentage jumping 63% from the previous year.

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 4.00.42 PM.png

Evidently, QR codes were trending.

A Dying Trend

Although QR codes provided museums with an easy, low risk, low cost solution for extending the visitor’s access to content, visitor adoption was trivial. While originally thought to be a useful tool, they never really caught on. QR codes had lost their novel charm. 

Studies have shown that QR codes have been approaching their death since inception. Inc’s 2012 research found that 97% of consumers didn’t even know what a QR code was (and they still don’t)!

Voices from the Museum Community

In 2009, Seb Chan, then Head of Digital at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, documented his process of implementing QR codes into one of the museum’s exhibitions. While he believed that QR codes had untapped potential, he also highlighted the potential obstacles museums faced by utilizing the technology.

Mia Ridge, the Digital Curator at the British Library and Chair at the Museums Computer Group in the UK, took a humorous stance against QR codes on Twitter:


Oh, no, think of all the poor little kittens!

Why Have QR Codes Died?

In 2013, Marketing Land, a digital marketing industry publication, reported on the lack of usage and overall death of QR codes.

The first major issue they highlighted was that while people were increasingly buying and using smartphones, they were not increasingly using QR codes. Apple and Android, the powerful forces behind over 98% of all smartphones, have never released a phone with a preloaded, general QR code reader.

“I am yet to see a commercial campaign that delivers that compelling reason to install the reader”, Seb Chan wrote early on about the problems and opportunities.

QR codes were also found to be a potential security risk. They could be tampered with and could contain dangerous malware that could access private information. Equally unsettling… scanning a code could lead to broken links or pages that weren’t properly optimized for mobile devices, leaving the user with a negative experience.

Others, including creative agency DigitalWire360, have noted the lack of aesthetic appeal of QR codes. You can easily imagine the potential distraction that QR codes inflict in a setting where precious objects and visuals are the focus. Just ask any curator how much they love a bunch of scrambled, pixelated shapes next to a museum masterpiece!

What’s Next?

It appears that the collective conclusion, and we strongly agree, is that it doesn’t make sense to use QR codes in general, but especially in the face of today’s more effective options.

The evolving digital ecosystem is making room for increasingly seamless and intuitive experiences.

There are numerous ways this can go and never-ending experimentation taking place in the museum field. At the end of the day, the visitors (and mass consumers), will decide what serves the most value to them, what works best, and what will live on.

By removing QR codes from museums, we remove unnecessary friction and noise from the visitor experience. It’s time to put the final nail in the coffin of QR codes once and for all, don’t you think?

What’s on your radar? Let us know your take on the topic on Twitter at @Cuseum with the hashtag #musetech.

Related Reading

FB Twitter LinkedIn