[NOTE: Reposted with minor edits from last month’s Medium]
Museum Hack has covered the basics of the Pokémon GO phenonomen so well for museums and heritage sites that I hardly need to go into it here. There are, of course, the obvious spikes in visitorship and attention from that coveted cohort, Gen Y, going across our square footage, searching high and low for the virtual invaders that have many heritage pros giddy over the fad (“Look, there are YOUNG PEOPLE in our parking lot! And they’re LOOKING. AT. US.”). This is especially true for the legion of small sites and museums that are desperately striving for increased visitation (See for yourself: there seems to be a proportional relationship between budget troubles and Pokémon GO promotion). For those sites, almost any warm (and hopefully entrance-fee-paying) body will do, as guest numbers is the name of many a P & L game. But, as the always-informative Colleen Dilenschneider has reminded us, there is a tremendous difference between fads and trends — and cultural professionals better recognize the distinction. It is not one without a difference. And Pokémon GO fits the perfect definition of a fad.
Some museums quickly took stands against it, most notably the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which made it perfectly clear that playing the game within its walls was a violation of its inarguably important mission.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director, told The Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”
Other heritage sites either followed suit or are decorously ignoring Pokémon GO altogether, sticking quietly and resolutely to the pursuit of their missions, which I have applauded. After all, Nintendo, the shares of which are soaring, didn’t ask anyone if they wanted the augmented reality beasties populating their site, any more than it intends to share its profits with them. Other cultural organizations, however, have made a thoughtful calculation that welcoming the players is neither inconsistent with their mission, nor does it get in the way of their current audiences or strategic plan, and it helps boost the bottom line a bit without costing anything, which is what every Trustee likes to hear. Either way, at least they thought about it. To the horror of many a donor, though, other cultural organizations have not been so circumspect, diverting existing resources from mission-oriented activities (if they are so lucky as to be mission-oriented in the first place) to a less dignified grab for the seemingly ubiquitous game players.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be drawn from the current craze that heritage pros at sites and organizations, large and small, might want to keep in mind.
First, stabilizing existing core audiences and building new ones are the keys to sustainability. And that generally means having a clear, relevant, and distinguishable mission that can be deployed by staff with some flexibility. Add some systems thinking to that, such as integrated marketing and development, and, voila!, you have the basis for a long-term community. Moreover, such missions attract and keep members, who often — or at least should — turn into higher-level donors (it really does work that way). So beware of embracing a fad without thinking of its impact on the audiences you already have and the perception it creates for those you want to build.
Second, what attracts guests to many heritage sites in the first place is not necessarily the same thing that attracts them to zoos or aquariums or even to an art museum. Staring at a battlefield landscape is really not the same thing as staring at a Van Gogh or a snow leopard. For the most part, heritage sites thrive on the powerful “sense of place” conjured in the imagination by standing in the space where something occurred, or where someone ostensibly remarkable lived and worked. Unless a site’s leadership starts throwing pirates or ghosts into the scene, that sense of place tends to keep heritage visitation numbers relatively steady, depending on whatever else is going on in the global economy (Ever been to the UK? Go. Now.). Heritage sites walk the thinnest of tight ropes, on which they constantly face an exceptionally delicate balance between retaining — or even sentimentally reconstructing —whatever remains of the past in the present, and attempting to creatively communicate it. That authenticity is an imperative form of content that once lost can almost never be regained.
Third, mission and content might get many people to visit a heritage site once, but the quality and nature of their experience is what will bring them back, whether the experience is hands-on or minds-on. And that experience had better be all about guest engagement, with staff or amongst each other, and clearly tied to the mission (so they don’t just go down the street for the same thing next time). The more immersive that experience, and the more relevant its connection to the present, the better, as the more senses one can engage, the greater the opportunity to unleash the lived experiences of the past.
Those things — mission and audience, sense of place, guest experience — provide the foundations of sustainability for a heritage site in the 21st century. Simply put, they drive visitation, donations, and visibility, which allow us to keep doing our work, which is to actively engage the public with the lessons the past has to offer.
But what does that have to do what Pokémon GO? Well, almost nothing. And that’s my point. Responsible heritage pros need to ask some key questions about those foundations when it comes to fads. Core, or historical, audiences are those that regularly visit heritage sites and organizations. Yes, they are aging. But we can’t forget about them, making assumptions that their numbers, however dwindling, won’t just completely disappear. How does something like Pokémon GO impact them and their experience?
Even more cloudy is the impact on the new audiences we hope to build, mostly comprised of Millennials (we Xers are always left out of the equation) and those who are coming after them (who are mostly playing the game). There is no silver bullet for securing their support, any more than there is for any other affinity audience, regardless of age or ethnicity. The argument that one just needs to get them through the door, in any way that “works”, from an augmented reality game to a beer tasting, and the magic of a place will suddenly and immediately be revealed, and they will somehow transform into long-term supporters that your development staff can move up the giving ladder, is a chimera. There is no reliable evidence, whatsoever, to support it. But that doesn’t mean Pokémon GO doesn’t matter. What is your museum or heritage site doing to transition any episodic guest, such as a Pokémon GO player, into one that is actually going to pay any attention to the reason you’re there at all, and transition them into members of your greater community? Is it, perhaps, by turning them on to other ways that you’re already trying use technology to engage guests, ways that actually connect to your content and mission?
Having almost literally run over three Pokémon GO players the other day when I was driving on College Hill, I won’t touch on their impact on the sense of place. That’s pretty obvious. But there will always be wanderers at our heritage sites, many of whom don’t have any more notion of why they’re there than that an adult told them they should go, which will always be a heavy tip on one side of the delicate balance.
That brings me to perhaps the most important question that heritage pros could ask of the Pokémon GO fad, and, therefore, the lessons that can be learned: what does it tell us about the kind of experience that younger guests don’t just want, but expect? Not a lot that’s new, actually. It’s more of a glaring confirmation of how technology is imbedded in their lives. Smart phones, and all the bells and smells they virtually produce, are part of the lived experience of digital natives, almost as much as the Geneva Bible was to the Puritans, so we have to make sure that is factored into the immersive experiences we want to create, and not as simplistic add-ons, but as an organic part of them. So ask yourself how such technology fits into either your overall strategic plan or your tactical toolkit.
Otherwise, Pokémon GO is neither new nor revolutionary for museums and heritage sites. Nor is it permanent. It is more of a wake-up call for us to look around us and ask how it impacts how to make sure our space will still be around when today’s players are looking for places to visit 20 years from now, when they have children enthralled by the latest fad.