Museum of codes

18 Mar

snake! by Joe Dunckley, on Flickr (2009)

Once I got the opening hours straight, I was straight over to what must be the very closest museum (as the crow flies) to my workplace. After a year in storage and transport, UCL’s Grant Museum has reopened in a new location, on University Street.

I never visited the Grant before it moved, but it seems the fundamental organisation of objects in glass cases and their labelling hasn’t changed (there’s a nice A-Z of pigeonholes by the entrance that are curatable, with aesthetic echoes of Keith Wilson’s Things and Mark Dion’s Welt Wissen installation).

The major change is the addition of technology. Primarily: the use of QR codes to identify and share information about objects; the use of iPads as interactive displays; and a framework which links in-gallery and online comments together into a ‘conversation’ about the objects. It looks like a relatively small technology budget has been used very imaginatively.

QR codes themselves I can take or leave. There seems to be some springtime of love in London for these curious 1990s Japanese throwbacks: everyone has them on their printed ephemera and posters. In the ‘looking cool’ stakes, they’ll soon be so over-used that by summer they’ll either look tacky or be invisible. Functionally: I recall Mia Ridge saying something about simple, quick paths to information, and if you have a smartphone (and a signal – no in-house wifi at the Grant) they do work as a simple trigger to open a webpage or application.

The iPads sit on a ledge at the bottom of the cases. In a custom-built app you can flick between a question, an opportunity to comment on that question, a QR code to identify the question that links it to others’ responses in the museum and online, and a live twitterstream (common to all iPads) of comments related to the Grant Museum as a whole.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the use of iPads is their function as a chameleon device: they’re small touchscreens that can do almost anything that you want them to. The first time I saw an iPad in gallery it was simply stuck to a wall displaying a short film on a loop, which had paused because the battery was running low. At the Grant, they’re properly mounted and power-tethered, and fulfilling a function most museum people probably think of as ‘kiosk’ (As in a small self-contained interactive. I had some discussion about whether my definition of a ‘kiosk’ or even ‘mini-kiosk’ was correct – the most persuasive argument against being that kiosks stand separately from the objects, where these iPads are intimately connected to the displays.)  Like PCs were twenty years ago, iPads might be powerful precisely because they ‘re mass-production objects that can easily emulate existing, known functions. But there’s absolutely nothing special about them being an iPad as such (that is: there’s obviously potential for generic tablet computers in galleries).

The questions asked on iPads I feel less enthusiastic about. Any visit to a museum sparks dozens of questions in my own mind that I’d rather discuss; though obviously germane to the displays, whether pets are preferable to wild animals isn’t really something I have an opinion about. I almost certainly fall into the category of over-involved as far as museums are concerned, though; and a good question can definitely be a spur to an interesting conversation.

However, the one question that provokes a (rather spiky) response from me via an iPad (I have to half-crouch down to use it) is this one:

Should science shy away from studying biological differences between races?

Studying the differences between people from different parts of the world was common in the past. Now, in more enlightened times, such science has become somewhat taboo, possibly due to the fear that conclusions would be drawn that could be considered racist. Should some topics be off-limits to science, when the potential outcomes are unknown? Is it racist to say that different races are biologically different?

Now there are genuinely interesting questions about race and science, that are particularly pertinent to the collection of Robert Grant, a thinker who influenced Darwin, whose own theories were influential on European attitudes to race.  But this is not one of those questions. It sets up an entirely false opposition between scientific ‘knowledge’ about race and subjective interpretations of racism, and precludes people (including me, with my spiky answer) from saying anything more interesting about anatomy, science and race.

The linking framework uses Tales of Things, a website/smartphone app that keys on QR codes to link personal stories to objects. Something like Bruce Sterling’s idea of a ‘spime‘, adding surplus aura to everyday objects is an interesting approach. It seems harder to join the dots once you’re outside the museum – you can contribute to the ‘race’ debate above directly on the Tales of Things website, but you have to know what you’re looking for. In addition there’s a Twitter hashtag (#GrantQR) which can get a bit meta-, as some of the conversations I was having about the technology after I visited have apparently been showing up on the iPads….

In fact, the most interesting conversation I had about interconnectedness came when I asked an invigilator whether it was OK to take photographs. Yes, for personal use only, I was told. The idea that ‘personal’ photography exists in opposition to ‘publishing’ photographs is, I think, a completely unsustainable proposition. Sharing is fundamental to the personal use of photographs now (and hurrah for that). Photography still causes anxiety in some museums – to take a photo is to take something away and potentially create your own node, your own focus for comment and discussion. At the Grant (very sensibly), the only concern seems to be commercial exploitation, and so after some consultation, I think we agreed that it would be OK to post the photos on Flickr under the appropriate noncommercial licence. And I’ll be back with my camera, because having been distracted by the technology, I didn’t even get as far as the Jar of Moles.

What’s going on here is very interesting – and testament to the benefits of being a university museum close to a Digital Humanities department on hand to help (rather than having to grow the expertise organically yourself, a huge challenge for small museums). Naturally, there are lots of places online to find out more:

QRator website
UCL Digital Humantities blog on the QRator project
Andrew Hudson-Smith’s blog on the project
Claire Ross’s blog on the project


One Response to “Museum of codes”


  1. Cracking the QR Code Question | IWM Social Interpretation - December 14, 2011

    […] Birchall has a review of QRator in the Grant Museum as well as adding on Twitter “but it doesn’t express quite how much I dislike QR […]

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