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 Additionally, the location of the Southern Railway 0-6-0 Q1 Class steam locomotive, No. 33001, has since been replaced by an ambulance trains exhibition.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.

The academic in the museum: the benefits of Collaborative Doctoral Awards

York Minster. Caption reads "York, See Britain by Train"
British Railways poster “York: Gateway to History” by E. H. Spencer, 1955

Sophie 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. 

At the beginning of this year I started my Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), with one of my main goals being to use the skills and knowledge I acquire through this process to further my prospects in the heritage sector. Moving through my stages of higher education, I have increasingly become a strong advocate for disseminating the historical knowledge generated in institutions of higher education for public consumption, i.e. public history. Therefore carrying out a doctorate that would bridge the resources and knowledge of the University of York and the National Railway Museum for a topic I had almost accidentally fallen into loving – commemorative practice – seemed silly to pass up sending an application in for. Drawing on my experiences so far, I’m going to discuss what these CDAs bring to the parties involved (the university, the partnered institution and the student) and how this relationship is an important and enhancing process for knowledge development and exchange.

According to their Scheme Guidance document, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the funder of the scheme, wants CDAs to allow students to “gain first hand professional experience outside the university environment“. As such the programme should give students “real opportunities to develop career enhancing skills in addition to an academic qualification“. I have had the opportunity to actively take part in tasks around the museum, such as pest-checking railway carriages with the conservation team, and attending meetings where decisions are made about what is carried out and why, including what objects come in and are loaned out of the National Railway Museum’s collections. This is important because I can dip my toes into various aspects of working in a museum without having to commit fully to an area I may not find is my niche.

Furthermore, one of the key aspects of the partnership is that the student has the resources, support and guidance of their university alongside the cultural heritage partner. I am able to use and learn from the expertise of those within the university to increase my skills as an academic. This includes various elements of developing my thesis such as research techniques, structuring and writing styles. This relationship is also important for forging a career in academia with opportunities including teaching undergraduate students, training sessions on getting my work published, and various occasions to deliver papers for academic audiences. Additionally, many of the academics at York are actively engaged with projects that utilise their research both within and outside the university, for example consulting for both factual and fictional television and film.

Crucially, these partnerships are also very important for the institutions the students are bridging. The AHRC highlights that they want partnerships that exist to be solidified and new ones to be formed through this experience. Though I can only comment from a student’s point of view, I believe that these links mean that knowledge exchange can take place between groups that may not have otherwise come together or may not have found an innovative way of pooling their resources. The CDA may also allow for the opportunity to nourish students to assist in developing new and exciting research and skills for the benefit of both partners. Finally these links could then branch out to other institutions. For example, both the Universityof York and the National Railway Museum have links with other universities and railway museums in Europe. This could allow for partnerships that bring four institutions together or potentially a crossover of links such as between the University and the European railway museum.

But it has to be remembered that not every CDA works as is intended. One aspect of this partnership that did not come to mind initially when I applied was how much of the timetable should be allotted to contributing to museum projects alongside the thesis. In opening conversations with fellow CDA students from all years across the country, one of the first topics that quickly crops up are horror stories of how other students were over-employed by their partnered intuitions, being swept up by cataloguing projects, and when the clock struck twelve on the funding at the end of the three years, they still had not completed writing up the thing they ultimately had set out to do – their thesis! This does not suggest a healthy partnership between the the student’s university and the institution, nor between the student and their supervisors. In fact, the AHRC states quite firmly that “applications which appear to be requesting interns will not be considered favourably“. However, I have found that this overload can be combatted by ensuring that the research that is being carried out for the thesis already has a benefit for the cultural heritage institution as well. This ultimately has to come in the planning stages of the application summited by the university and in this case the museum. My research will hopefully be used to inform part of an exhibition and I will also be actively engaged in the exhibition planning. Therefore, aside from the experiences I am encouraged to or I ask to do in the museum, my research already has an output that benefits myself, the university, and importantly the partnered institution.

Overall I believe CDAs are important for a number of reasons: they allow students to develop essential experience over an extended period of time for their professional and academic development; it means that academic research in universities can be translated for public consumption, where the researcher can be actively involved in how this is carried out; they allow strong partnerships to develop and solidify between universities and cultural institutions for essential research to be carried out in future; finally they encourage symbiotic relationships between these institutions to become the norm where research coming out of universities can be used for the enhancement of the public’s education outside of places of formal learning. I therefore hope that the number of CDAs can increase for the benefit of universities, their students, the cultural heritage partners and, most importantly for me, for the general public.