Pokémon and Public History

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.

Pokemon PEM

Pokemon character 5Pokémon 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.

Pokemon Team

Pokemon Team 2

Pokemon Pair 2

Pokemon Pair

Pokemon Pair 4

Pokemon quartet

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.

  1. It’s Salem COMMON, not Commons!
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Pokemon character 4 WTM

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. ….

Pokemon character 8

Pokemon character 7

Pokemon character 9

Pokemon character 10

Pokemon character 11

This guy appeared in my office at Salem State, also a hotbed of activity.

Pokemon office 2

13 responses to “Pokémon and Public History

  • Nathanielle Sean Crawford

    I don’t share pictures of my nieces and nephews, but my sister-in-law got a beautiful picture of her daughters holding and petting a Pidgey. (That’s the bird in the bottom photo)

  • Michelle

    As a public historian, I’m decidedly whelmed. I think (as with video, photo, strollers, hats, touching, alcohol, etc.), each site needs to make its own decisions as to what types of activities are allowed there, and they are welcome to. Some sites, like the Holocaust Museum and others, explicitly disallow it; others are cleverly embracing it, like the LA Natural History Museum which is running a “Pokewalk” for trainers led by a natural historian, who shares some of the morphological similarities between Pokemon and the animals that inspired them. Museums have accommodated and navigated fads before. I think the most concerning aspect of the whole phenomenon is this: they didn’t see Pokemon coming. That speaks to the general poor digital and gaming literacy among the professional museum community.

    The database on which this is built was initially a project of Google. Before Pokemon Go, the company Niantic (a former Google subsidiary, now independent) developed the database for a game called Ingress (https://www.ingress.com/). In that game, you work with a “team” (though you may never meet the other members) to “capture” historic sites, public art pieces, and landmarks, termed “portals.”The Historical Marker database was used to build the Ingress database, but added to that were things like schools, libraries, public art pieces, abandoned buildings, etc. An important note is that Ingress players could nominate locations to become “portals” in Ingress, so it’s also more than possible that local Ingress players selected the Salem locations now experienced in Pokemon Go. A list of Ingress portals can be downloaded from fan sites like this one (http://iitc.jonatkins.com/?page=desktop) – Pokemon Go players are now using it to find new Pokemon locations. Some wonks have speculated that the utility of Ingress (and now Pokemon Go) for Google is to build a trove of GPS data that enhances Google Maps’ ability to mark pedestrian pathways.I played Ingress in Salem for a while to check it out, and the city was a very active location with lots of players, though nowhere near the visibility of Pokemon go. It is great that Pokemon Go is fun, simple, and involves people of all ages – Ingress was more of an internet-geek’s game.

    My philosophy of museum and public history practice is very agnostic to purpose. I want sites to be experienced and to be used. I’d prefer they were more deeply embedded in everyday life, not foreign or other, and think that when it’s possible, welcoming gaming like this can help break down the threshold fear that often keeps many potential visitors away from these sites. That’s not to say a site should allow gaming if it isn’t appropriate – just that, whenever it is responsible and realistic, it is another way to achieve a level of impact on a wider community.

  • rfavis

    Wow, just wow. There are so many cool and interesting things in history-rich Salem and in the National Parks that I can’t wrap my mind around why anyone would need something imaginary overlaid on these sites. It’s like some kind of self-induced schizophrenic experience.

    • daseger

      Thanks so much for your comments–I really welcome them as I’m trying to process this myself! Not sure where I stand yet, but I think the word “overlaid” is interesting and apt.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I’d like to know the story behind photo No. 5, with the blond-haired boy in the foreground and what, I can only assume, is 1) a wanna-be witch, 2) a street evangelist or 3) someone who’s just plain off their rocker and howling at the sky.

  • Sean Munger

    Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    I recently started reading the very interesting Streets of Salem blog, and this article about the Pokemon Go craze caught my eye. As a historian I’ve been fascinated by the stories I’ve heard (and the things I’ve seen with my own eyes) of people going to various historical sites, many for the first time, to catch Pokemon monsters on their phones. I admit the whole thing is a bit puzzling, but Streets of Salem has an interesting take on it. Great blog to follow, by the way!

  • tamara0202

    Yes, super interesting phenomenon. I’m studying 18th century diagrams for movement (notation systems for dance, drill formations, dressage patterns). The human/landscape interface mediated by cell phones and cartoon characters – what does it mean?! No answers here either but it is making me think about my project in new ways.

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