On the tiny top floor of the sprawling British Museum is a curious collection of Japanese art that ranges from Samurai warrior swords to Manga comic books. Since 2014, it has housed some of the museum’s littlest masterpieces—namely, a collection of tiny, 300-year-old carved animals called netsuke, which merchants would string onto their kimono sashes as personal accessories. Some resemble long-tailed foxes; one is an eagle with a puppy in its talons. They’re cute but also grotesque; a little like today’s pint-size Pokemon.
The similarity is no coincidence. Netsuke, it turns out, are the earliest known relatives of the colorful, pudgy pocket monsters that millennials around the globe are seeking out on the augmented reality app Pokemon Go. So perhaps it’s fitting that Pokemon Go is sending its players to museums in droves.
Some of the museums benefiting from Pokemon Go’s foot traffic are established cultural magnets. The British Museum, for instance, has a PokeStop in its iconic Parthenon exhibit. But many of them are small, hometown institutions that have a hard time appealing to a younger demographic—and are willing to do whatever it takes to boost visitation.
Here's what's happening: Game maker Niantic Labs has planted innumerable "PokeStops," or little in-game treasure troves, near real-life landmarks in places where the game is played. Players can see these spots on their phone screens, which show them a map of where they are walking in real life, augmented with treats and monsters from the Pokemon world.
A PokeStop could be an artwork in a museum or an interesting architectural feature on a building. Gamers need to visit these landmarks to arm themselves for the game—and they need to visit so-called gyms—similar real-world-based locations—to train to play better. (Full disclosure: The Bloomberg building in New York City is a "gym.") There are thousands of PokeStops and gyms in a given city, plus roving little monsters to fight—which are the actual Pokemon in the game's title.
An Overnight Success Story
Mid-July is the slowest time of year for the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, a 23-acre estate dedicated to modern art in a city where summer temperatures can climb north of 95 degrees. “It’s hot here in the summer,” said Julie Ledet, the museum’s communications coordinator, “So when we see more people on the grounds, we take notice.”
And take notice they have. On Monday, the museum shared an image on Instagram of the coiled purple snake Pokemon, called Ekans, in the museum’s courtyard; the post invited gamers to seek out the eight PokeStops and four gyms on the McNay grounds. In the two days since, the museum’s Instagram account has seen a 125 percent increase in engagement, and security estimates that the social media buzz has translated to a 50 percent bump in visitation. At the McNay, which sees 134,000 annual visitors, that represents roughly 1,000 extra bodies in the span of one week.
Crystal Bridges, the five-year-old American art museum in Bentonville, Ark., has reported similar increases. After a blog post last Thursday invited Pokemon fans to “catch them all” on the museum grounds, a spokesperson reported an attendance uptick of nearly 30 percent—with higher visitation numbers than on the Fourth of July weekend, which is among the museum’s busiest all year. That number doesn’t even begin to quantify the increase in foot traffic, said spokesperson Beth Bobbitt, noting that many gamers are exploring the museum’s grounds rather than checking in explicitly with guest services.
Even in Boca Raton, Fla., a place known more for retirement communities and golf courses than kids attached to their smartphones, Pokemon Go has driven a startling 25 percent single-day spike in attendance to the tranquil Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens, where there are 15 PokeStops.
Museums on the traditional tourist trail seem less affected by the rush. Several major institutions in New York City and Washington, D.C., had been unable to quantify any visitation increases at press time, though staffers had noticed museum-goers interacting with the app in gallery and garden spaces. But when travelers have to elbow their way through the Louvre to get to the Mona Lisa, Pokemon hunters may be the last thing that iconic institutions need.
Making It Count
Niantic Labs, the Google offshoot that developed Pokemon Go, gave Bloomberg the following statement about the placement of its PokeStops:
“PokeStops and Gyms in Pokemon GO are found at publicly accessible places such as historical markers, public art installations, museums and monuments.”
In most cases, PokeStops are intended to exist in public spaces rather than behind a real-life paywall. In other words, if an institution charges admission, PokeStops should be outside the turnstiles. (Inappropriate or mistaken PokeStops and gyms can be reported on Niantic Labs’ site.)
Those museums that have PokeStops in their publicly accessible areas are hoping to convert gamers into paying visitors—perhaps even converting a few into repeat customers.
Museum Hack, an organization that helps cultural institutions expand their audiences, is tracking some of the more creative efforts to get Pokemon users in the door. Tiffany Rhoades, the company’s audience development assistant, says Pokemon-driven “hunting parties” are like next-gen Instameets; among the pioneers are the Louisville Zoo, which is promoting a tour designed just for Pokemon Go fans. Two thousand players have already signed up. In upstate New York, a small-town historical society in Schenectady is similarly promoting a Pokemon walk in the downtown Stockade Historic District; the 100 registered guests will learn about the area’s unsung architecture and monuments. Mary Zawacki, curator of the Schenectady County Historical Society told a local newspaper that the game “is majorly changing how we interact with the spaces around us, and the people around us. It means people engaging with each other and with spaces more."
Some museum professionals are also considering adding lures to their galleries. A paid feature, a "lure" allows Pokemon Go users magnetically to attract characters, which can roam freely. It costs just $1 to buy a single lure, and the owners of several bars and pizza shops are seeing a quick return on the investment. Museums should be no different.
A Few Wrong Turns
While some institutions are desperate to attract Pokemon foot traffic, not all the museums that were automatically enrolled into Niantic Labs’ location database are happy about their inclusion. Prominently, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., pleaded with visitors that they stop playing games in a place where many visitors come to mourn and reflect. The same can be said about Arlington National Cemetery, which took to Twitter and made headlines this week for (understandably) rejecting the presence of Pokemon hunters.
Some say screen shots of these in-poor-taste PokeStops are hoaxes. But they’re still driving players to the sites. "Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism," Andrew Hollinger, the Holocaust Museum's communications director, said in a statement to media yesterday.
Generally speaking, though, Pokemon Go users have received a warm welcome from cultural institutions across the country and around the world. Only a few of them have gone rogue—one curator had to ask unknowing players not to sit on the base of a sculpture, and some players have hopped fences to avoid paying admission. Nick Gray, the founder and chief executive officer of Museum Hack, says one of the few anecdotes he’s heard so far concerned national park visitors who went too far off the trails. He said some historic houses had also expressed a wariness about Pokemon hunts in delicate environments. But to his knowledge, no art has been harmed (thus far) in the process of Pokemon hunting.
Gotta Catch the Art
For museums that are enthusiastically receiving new visitors, the key will be how to engage them—and how to foster meaningful interactions with art that doesn’t involve flaming dragons and pastel-hued turtles.
“Arguably it’s been the most successful platform to drive people to any space,” said Gray. His colleague, Tiffany Rhoades, says that most of the app’s users are absolutely craving real-world interactions. “You need to find out what your visitor is interested in, and as soon as you know that, you can start connecting it back to your institution,” she advised.
Ultimately, hunting for Pokemon is no different than going on a museum-created scavenger hunt—a popular mechanism for engaging students on school tours. But unlike technologies that are fully limited to the screen of a smartphone, Pokemon Go is built on the premise of augmented reality: It demands that its users actually engage with their real-world surroundings. To that end, the app includes key facts about objects or elements of architecture in the immediate vicinity. Using these clues to find PokeStops inherently demands a sense of exploration and curiosity.
Instagram: Instagram photo by Gardner Museum It seems to be working. Julie Ledet, from the McNay Art Museum, says that the same guests who post Instagram pictures of their Pokemon screen shots are also taking selfies in front of notable works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and Gauguin.
To help players come away with more of an appreciation for what they’ve seen, museums and national parks are enlisting staff and park rangers to get in on the fun. When fully rolled out, the staffers who are playing the game will be able to strike up real-life interactions with other Pokemon Go players in their paths, walking with them from one PokeStop to the next and offering up a spontaneous tour in between. It’s a nascent strategy, but it’s already coming into fruition across the U.S. National Parks system and San Antonio’s McNay.
For her part, Kathy Sharpless, the director of marketing and communications at the idyllic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston said her institution is “delighted to be included in the craze.” But for the Gardner Museum, the end goal is clear. “We hope that once inside the museum, visitors will focus on the beauty rather than the game. If the game helps them get here and then they want to relax and enjoy, everyone wins.”