The Best of Both Worlds: QRpedia.

While scanning a quick response (QR) code on the back of a cereal box only to find it directs you to the cereal’s web site is, how can I put this politely, fun (that’s my attempt at sarcasm), it neither reflects the appropriate usage nor does it maximize the potential of those nifty little black and white squares. There's the cereal box QR code, and then there's QRpedia. QRpedia is a program announced by the Wikimedia Foundation in September 2011. It is currently competing in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress for the title of the United Kingdom’s “most innovative mobile company.” Today, on February 29th, the winner of the award will be announced. The reward? The United Kingdom Trade and Investment’s (UKTI) support to expand the company internationally.

But enough about the competition. What exactly is QRpedia and how does it work in the museum setting? It functions just as an ordinary QR code does, except for its whole language-detecting brilliance. A Polish speaking viewer walks up to, let’s say, Claude Lorrain’s Seaport at Sunset (1639) hanging in the Louvre in Paris. In front of the text panel, the visitor whips out his/her smartphone and snaps a photo of the QRpedia code. The QRpedia code instantly detects the phone’s language and the browser opens to a Wikipedia article on the painting or related topic in that written language. If an article on Claude Lorrain’s Seaport at Sunset isn’t available in Polish, the QRpedia code will direct the user to the next most closely related topic available in that language, perhaps an article on the French, 17th-century landscape painter, Nicolas Poussin.

QRpedia’s language-detecting technology makes it truly unique. For foreign visitors, this eliminates the expense of an audio guide from museum visits (if there is a guide even available in their preferred language) and replaces it with the ease of snapping a photo, the interactivity of a QR code and the straight-forward, mobile-formatted information of a Wikipedia article.

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Terence Eden, the lead developer of QRpedia, says

QRpedia is the perfect way to get access to massive amounts of cultural information. A typical museum display has less than a paragraph of text, often just in one language – QRpedia can give encyclopedic information in hundreds of languages. Recently, in Derby Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright was taken away for cleaning. The Museum staff have put a QRpedia code in its place so that visitors can still see a high quality image of the painting, and read information about the painting and its creator.

The program was created at the Derby Museum and Gallery in England. Today it is available online for any and every museum, gallery, library, public park, archive, historic landmark and so on. QRpedia has been implemented at numerous prestigious museums and galleries worldwide, including the United Kingdom’s National Archives and Spain’s Fundació Joan Miró. How about the United States, you ask? Why yes! It has been implemented at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. But why stop there? Its usage is not limited to arts and cultural institutions. Fun fact- the Occupy movement uses QRpedia codes on its posters and publications to disperse information to a wide and diverse audience.

What’s in it for the museum? A lot, actually.

1) You can create your own, online, as often and as many as you want.

2) For museums with multilingual audiences, a text panel can become cluttered and overwhelming with various translations. Additionally, the space allotted to provide relevant information becomes increasingly limited with numerous translations, causing you to cut-back even further on relevant information.

3) Because Wikipedia is editable, a curator, exhibition director, museum official or artist can translate articles to various languages and create articles if there is a void. That being said, so can anyone else. But be brave. Be bold. Be confident in the power of the public intellectual collective.

4) According to Roger Bamkin, the co-creator of QRpedia and the chair of Wikimedia UK, “We see e-volunteers giving thousands of hours to support museums... Hundreds of new articles have been created in dozens of different languages.” Beyond printing the codes, I’d say the work is done almost entirely for you.

5) QRpedia codes are not limited to paintings and items in your collection. Incorporate them in museum signage, directionals, cafe menus, etc.

6) QRpedia also records usage analytics. Museums, galleries, whoever, can track the number of QRpedia users, the paintings with the most QR code action, the most common languages, etc. In my humble opinion, it offers a rather innovative way to get to know your audience.

Accessible, innovative, interactive (for those inside the museum and those elsewhere translating Wikipedia articles without any intent to ever visit the museum…), and FREE. For museums and cultural institutions looking to expand into the QR code realm, this is the place to start. The Wikipedia articles are already written, online, and translated. Why not offer your visitors a more complete museum experience in their preferred language?