Update: I cobbled together my thoughts on this topic for The Daily Beast.
They have already been sighted at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the Flight 93 National Memorial and even the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. No, this is not a new wave of young history buffs, but phone wielding kids (and adults) playing Pokemon Go. Read this before proceeding any further if you have no idea what I am talking about. Don’t worry. I had to look it up as well.
The Holocaust Museum had to issue a statement requesting that visitors show the utmost respect for the museum and the story it tells. Even National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis decided to make a brief video reminding videos that they just might be interested in looking up from their phones long enough to appreciate the beauty and history of our national parks. Arlington National Cemetery is facing similar problems. It’s just a matter of time before we hear stories of visitors playing the game at the 9-11 Memorial in New York City.
Apart from the obvious cases where the game conflicts with the sanctity of a specific site, however, I have yet to see how museums and historic sites are planning to take advantage of this new craze. After all, half the battle is getting people to historic sites and museums.
I don’t have any answers, but I do think the nature of a given site’s response will tell us a good deal about how they frame their mission in relationship to the general public. Control is certainly part of the equation. Many places assume in some shape or form that it is what they have to offer that ought to be sufficient to attract the general public. The thought of people arriving for reasons that have nothing to do or even appear antithetical with the site’s historical significance or purpose must be unsettling for some.
As has already been pointed out to me, the challenges that Pokemon Go present to historic sites in particular may overlap in interesting ways with the recent rise of what some people call, “Dark Tourism.” Is the search for ghosts at Gettysburg really much different than searching for cartoon characters that exist in a virtual world?
There are reports that some Pokemon players are taking the time to learn about the places they visit, but I suspect that they will be few and far between. I suspect that those historic sites and museums whose interaction with the general public is framed around finding ways to meet people half-way will have the most success. The trick will be to find creative ways to engage these people without sacrificing their core mission. In the long run, it’s not enough to simply count bodies.
Well, let’s see how this unfolds. I would love to hear of museums and historic sites that are thinking creatively about how to take advantage of this latest craze.