Can’t See the Exhibits for the Pokémon

Pokemon crossing SVSophie Vohra is a CDA student at the University of York in collaboration with the National Railway Museum. Her research examines the commemorative cultures and making of railway history. 

Pokémon. For some of us a happy reminder of our millennial childhood that we left buried on a Gameboy somewhere in a forgotten draw. But as our cycle moves back into 90s style edging into the early 2000s, we are bombarded again with this craze. This time using a format so many of us are now so familiar with – the smart phone app. This new game has people of all ages engaging with physical space in a way that seems almost unheard of in this day and age, and this most definitely includes places of heritage. In this piece I want to briefly examine how this incredibly popular game works within my partnered institution, the National Railway Museum.

In the National Railway Museum, visitors are spoilt for choice when wanting to boost their Pokémon experience. It boasts not one but two gyms and seven Pokéstops. This means that the avid collector can make their way around the museum space while catching their Pokémon and maybe gain enough ground to hatch another egg. But does this mean that they will actually pay attention to the fantastic objects masquerading on their app as a place to train their best players?

There are several mistakes in what they believe to be in the GPS spots on the game. Of the two gyms, the one that claims to be the royal train is actually incorrectly labelled. The royal trains are all in Station Hall, while this gym is in the other large section of the museum called the Great Hall. Additionally, the location of the Southern Railway 0-6-0 Q1 Class steam locomotive, No. 33001, has since been replaced by an ambulance trains exhibition. I also don’t think Queen Anne would be happy to know that where her royal saloon car should apparently sit is actually taken up by an LNER loco with a third class carriage attached behind!

Further to this, the objects used as stops or gyms appear to be a rather random selection. They are, like the rest of the Pokéstops for the game, things or places of special interest. But why would you then choose the SR 33001 over an engine like the Evening Star, or the N&CR Water trough over Laddie, the stuffed railway collecting dog in Station Hall? It also shocked me that a secluded wall of railway-related signs right in the back corner of the Hall is attributed with gym status. Why not choose a famous loco such as the versions of Rocket or Locomotion in the Great Hall instead? If the points of interest chosen were selected by the museums themselves, it may give a very different image of the star pieces in the collection. Additionally, specifically in the NRM, there would be the opportunity to place some of the stops or gyms in the extensive open-storage warehouse with so many interesting items to explore. So users of the app are signposted to go to specific items in the museum, but not those that I believe would be chosen by the museum themselves.

Some museums are using this craze to their advantage as a unique selling point. The Black Country Living Museum for example is offering discounted admission to the site between the hours of 3pm-5pm until 4 September for those who present the app on entry and wish to catch Pokémon! But this appears to be a way of getting bums on seats and boosting giftshop sales rather than actually encouraging these visitors to engage with the collections. Surely that is what museums’ main concern should be rather than demonstrating that 16-25 year olds really do come to places of heritage now for more funding! (check out The Museum Playbook post for example). This is where the heritage industry becomes centred around its function as a business rather than their ethical obligations to preserve their collections to benefit present and future generations.

As much as I am proud of myself for taking over the ‘Old Timey Signs Discriminating Against Farmers’ gym for less than an hour, I wasn’t really paying attention to my surroundings when doing so and I suspect neither are those visitors playing the game around the museum as well. Does chasing a Pikachu into the museum not only help to increase visitor numbers but also enable them to benefit the learning opportunities these spaces have to offer (as well as being able to grab some treats from the Pokéstop)? Or have we actually found a way of engaging with space while at the same time having no understanding beyond an alternative reality map of the world around us? I think we can only come close to answering these with a real research project focussing on these sorts of issues. For now, I think we will just have to let trainers catch their Pokémon and hope that they can spend enough time with their eye line above their phone to see some of the amazing stuff the heritage industry has to offer.

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