Pokémon Go is invading Canadian museums, so how are they responding?
When it comes to luring new members, the game could be the very best — like no one ever was
When the McMichael Canadian Art Collection called a management meeting this Tuesday, it was to discuss a matter they'd never seen in their 50-year history. There'd been an accident. A young visitor, wandering around the museum's tree-lined acres, had walked smack through a wooden parking barrier. "Everybody was fine," says the McMichael's Chief Curator, Sarah Stanners. "Clearly," she laughs, "there must be Pokémon on our grounds."
Even without officially arriving in Canada, the last week of the news cycle has been more obsessed with Pokémon Go than your kid sister was in the '90s — and that little nerd even owned a holographic Charizard card. So as you probably know — since it's become the most popular game app in history, installed on more phones than Tinder in its first day of existence and now beating Twitter and Netflix in daily active users — the game uses GPS technology.
To find Pokémon, players must walk around in the real world. The critters they're hunting could be anywhere — or everywhere, if we're talking about common dirtbag species like Pidgeys and Rattatas — but there are also designated points of play that are pre-baked into the game, a.k.a. Pokéspots and Gyms. In real life, they're often cultural landmarks, and per the game's developer, Niantic Labs, they're meant to be free-to-access public places — monuments, historical sites, public artworks and museums.
In the U.S., Australia and the U.K. — regions where the game is officially available — museums are already benefiting from this quirk of the game. It's not a hard and fast rule; some places aren't the appropriate fit for Pokémon Go (please see stories of players trapping Koffing at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC). But by and large, if you have a Pokéstop at your museum, visitors are on the rise.
I'd prefer that people find their own special place here and explore it in a playful manner. And in fact, this game does just that.- Sarah Stanners, Chief Curator, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
When Arkansas' Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art invited Pokémon trainers to play at their gallery, for example, Bloomberg reports they saw a 30 per cent boost in attendance. The Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in Boca Raton, Fla. — home to a whopping 15 Pokéstops — got a single-day attendance boost of 25 per cent (though they've also, reportedly, seen a rise in game-related vandalism, thanks to goofs writing slogans like "Mewtwo wuz here" in chalk around the property). Across the board, institutions are trapping and sharing pictures of Jigglypuffs and Squirtles and they're beginning to brainstorm new programming that works with the game — like walking tours, for instance.
"They may come for Pokémon, but end up having an experience with art that they weren't expecting!" says Caitlin Coull at the Art Gallery of Ontario (which hosts three Pokéstops, by the AGO's count, including inside Walker Court). "We're planning to experiment with dropping Pokémon lures to bring more players (and Pokémon) to the gallery, especially during times of free admission."
According to a Canadian Heritage study released this spring, visitors to Canadian museums and non-profit art galleries has already been on the rise since their last similar survey in 2011, though membership is down 64 per cent. So if you're an under-served museum, Pokémon Go could potentially offer something way sweeter than the mix of nostalgia, easy play and augmented-reality magic that the game gives players. Maybe those gamers could be converted into members.
The game "is particularly valuable to some of the more niche collections," says Rachel Weiner, the communications coordinator at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, Canada's national ceramics museum — which now welcomes visitors with signs inviting them to play Pokémon Go and tag any photos they take in the space.
The staff there has been playing the game since the craze launched over the weekend. "Working in a Pokéstop we have more Pokéballs than we know what to do with," Weiner jokes, and they've already taken advantage of the game's "lure" function — which, like the name suggests, attracts Pokémon to a given location. (Available as an in-app purchase and given out for free at Pokéstops, a single lure is approximately $1 US to buy.)
"Last weekend, a group of at least 20 people responded to a lure by flocking to the front of the museum. It's something that we'll continue to experiment with," says Weiner, sharing some of their other ideas in progress — like a meet-up in the museum's plaza and rock garden, maybe. Like so many institutions, the Gardiner is keen on finding new, young audiences — exactly the demo that's playing Pokémon Go. This summer, they announced that admission is free to people 18 and younger. Says Weiner, the timing of the game's launch couldn't have been better.
For other Canadian museums, however, the very idea of the game seems like throwing a bull in a china shop — or a Tauros in a ceramics gallery, as the case may be. Both Stanners and a rep for the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton expressed some concern over how the game might distract patrons.
"[We'd] need to take into account how people move through exhibitions — particularly with installations and/or sculptures," Nikki van Dusen at the AGA writes CBC Arts, sharing a photo of their current show, Allora and Caldzadilla: Echo to Artifact, an installation involving fossils and transparent Plexiglas sculptures. If gamers don't look where they're going, she says, it's "potentially hazardous to them and the art."
Some museum exhibitions don't allow photography because of copyright issues, as reps at the Vancouver Art Gallery and McMichael pointed out. Plus, jokes Stanners, "Our brand is really important to us, too. We don't want to cheapen anything by having some sort of weird cartoon character leaping in front of an A.Y. Jackson."
The fact that the game isn't officially available in Canadian app stores has discouraged several museums from jumping on the craze immediately. Reps at The Rooms (St. John's, Nfld.), Vancouver Art Gallery, AGA, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax) responded to CBC Arts, saying they're hesitant to engage with Pokémon Go players at the moment because of that fact. Still, most of them said that they've been happy to see people suddenly appearing outside their doors because of the game — and they'll try tapping into the new foot traffic once the game's Canadian launch finally arrives.
"I have the job of making historical Canadian paintings relevant to young people," Stanners tells CBC Arts of her job at the McMichael, a gallery which promotes Canadian and Aboriginal art and that houses traditional works by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. In hoping to connect with a younger demo, they've pursued contemporary programming (like current exhibition, Field Trip, by Sarah Anne Johnson) along with extended hours on Thursday nights and bus-trip events between the gallery and Toronto's Gladstone Hotel.
"We're driving very hard to get younger people here," she says, so when she noticed a pack of teenage boys walking down the McMichael's driveway on Monday, she thought, "'Oh! Kids are getting it! We're tapping into a younger market!'"
Turns out, though, it was all because of Pokémon.
There are Pokéstops on the McMichael's 100 acres of Humber River valley land. "We have sculptures on the grounds, we have trails," she says. "I've been developing a vision for the McMichael and part of it is the idea of exploration and free enjoyment. I'd prefer that people find their own special place here and explore it in a playful manner. And in fact, this game does just that."
"This was something that caught us by surprise. We had not planned for it, but now we're discovering that 18-year-old boys are exploring the McMichael grounds," she laughs. "If you want to experience [the McMichael] with technology, that's wonderful!"