Public history is about engaging the public with the past and its public memory, often through places, so you would think that an augmented reality game that drives people to historical sites would be welcomed by museum professionals and heritage site managers. Their reaction to Pokémon Go, however, has been decidedly mixed.While park sites seem to embrace the game and its players, several museums and sacred sites have just said no to Pokémon Go. In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Museum opted out after a photograph of a poisonous-gas-emitting Pokémon named Koffing in the museum elicited quite a response online. The museum’s communications director, Andrew Hollinger, issued a statement that “Playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate. We are attempting to have the Museum removed from the game”. Likewise, Arlington National Cemetery tweeted the following statement on July 12: We do not consider playing “Pokemon Go” to be appropriate decorum on the grounds of ANC. We ask all visitors to refrain from such activity. Many cemeteries across the country have followed suit, but several museums have invited visitors to “catch ’em all” within their walls. I think that art museums can embrace Pokémon Go as perfomance art that brings in much-needed millenials, but history sites have a different mission and response, especially those charged with commemorating tragedy.
Pokémon popping out in the vicinity of the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitors Center downtown–I have no idea what their names are: they just appear and I “throw” balls at them and take their pictures. They’re everywhere–even in my backyard and office!
So that brings me to Salem, a real hotbed of Pokémon Go activity from the release, and especially last weekend when an event called SalemGo! Catch ‘Em All! PokéWalk organized by the always-inspired folks at Creative Salem brought hundreds of Pokémon players to downtown. With its compact urban streetscape and multitude of historic markers, sites, and museums (real and “experiential”), Salem is a perfect setting for Pokemon, so I followed these enthusiastic hunter-gatherers to see how they engaged with all of the above. To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of engagement: most people proceeded with eyes fixed on their phones from Pokésite to Pokésite, barely passing a glance at the actual building/ monument/ installation/entity. However, I did not see any historically-insensitive trespassing (even though both the Old Burying Point and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial are Pokésites, as well as the Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street) and it was fun to see so many backpack-bearing players out there, on the streets of Salem: in teams, in pairs, entire families, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, grandfathers and granddaughters.
I soon realized I couldn’t make an evaluation of the impact of Pokémon Go on heritage sites during this event–it was a Pokéwalk not a Pokéstroll. I’d have to go out on my own and see just how the hunt for these virtual creatures could impact connections to both place and the past. So that’s what I did, as early in the morning as possible. I didn’t come to any great conclusions, but here are my thoughts, descending from nitpicky and Salem-specific to a bit more substantive and general.
- It’s Salem COMMON, not Commons!
- So happy that the Witch Museum is NOT a Pokéstop; but unfortunately the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theater and 13 Ghosts or whatever it is called are.
- BUT super excited that the ACTUAL site of the Salem Gaol is a Pokéstop (and not just the Witch Dungeon Museum–which appropriated the plaque of the actual site).
- Where oh where is the United States Lightship Museum? I thought it was on Nantucket, but Pokémon Go tells me it is a PokéGym here in Salem.
- I spoke to several Park Service rangers, all of whom told me they were excited to see hundreds of visitors on Derby Wharf. Pokémon Go could well be a boon to all of our National Parks, in this their centennial year.
- A Pokéstop is just that, a stop. But wild Pokémon can appear anywhere, at any time, and lure you anywhere. Strange creatures tried to lure me into both the Witch Trials Memorial and the Old Burying Point, but I resisted.
- So many churches and monuments! You can definitely tell that Pokémon Go is based on the Historical Marker database, which includes sites both conventional and a bit more obscure–driving people to the latter, even if they’re not spending much time there–has got to be a benefit. Awareness is always a benefit.
That’s about it: I don’t really have any particularly penetrating insights into this phenomena, as you see. I would love to hear from some heritage professionals–particularly those who manage sites that are a bit more….sensitive. I must say that while I don’t particularly care about catching Pokémon in the context of the game, I love capturing them on my camera. There’s something about the juxtaposition of obviously unreal things in real settings that is quite captivating: I expect to see notice of some big exhibition soon! In the meantime, here are my own offerings, starting with the creature at the Witch Trials Memorial.A surreal site indeed: I really don’t want to see similar creatures getting any closer to those benches.
More Pokémon in less sensitive settings below. There are a whole bunch on Federal Street, particularly in the vicinity of the Peirce-Nichols House., so heads up. ….
This guy appeared in my office at Salem State, also a hotbed of activity.