Title:How to Win an Art Prize without Making a Thing: QR codes, Classifications, and Controversy
Authors:Susan Cairns
Publication:MW2012: Museums and the Web 2012

A growing number of museums have begun to seize upon the possibilities of Quick Response (QR) codes linked to electronic records and multimedia as a way to augment in-gallery information. QR codes seem to provide museums with a simple and accessible way of providing additional in situ information about objects. However, access does not necessarily lead to engagement. This paper documents an augmented reality art intervention that used QR codes linked to digital captions to expose both the flawed nature of museum classification, and the potentially alienating effect of technology in the museum context.

Called Classify Me2.0, the museological work, which won the 2011 Watt Space Gallery Art Prize and responded to the Art Prize theme Classify Me, was a form of trompe l'oeil curating, a term coined by America artist Fred Wilson to mean meta-museology.  The artist assigned classification to all works of art entered into the Prize, exposing vital problems inherent in the categorisation of museum objects. This was a critical undertaking because, as Ken Arnold writes, "taxonomy and classification have for almost three centuries been the most powerful way by which knowledge has been created and then reinterpreted within museums."[1]

The artist then used QR codes linked to electronic records to display these classifications proximate to the works themselves, making it possible for visitors with enabled smart phones to consider the classification of object in situ with the objects themselves. However, the QR codes were visually unengaging and difficult to 'read'. Prior to exhibition, the Gallery Director decided that no explanation of how to use QR codes in the Gallery space, meaning that only those already familiar with the technology were really enabled to interact with the work. The classification website could be accessed via a computer on site, but it too was difficult to engage with. Few visitors to the exhibition utilised either technology to connect with the work.

By winning an art show with a museological critique Classify Me2.0 provoked controversy in the local arts community. However, it also exposed serious complexities and flaws inherent in museum classification, and demonstrated clear barriers to access of technology in the museum context if not fully integrated into supporting documentation. This paper will document the issues it raised about classifications, QR codes and technology.


[1] Arnold, Ken. Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums. Hants & Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. 243.