Monday, 18 July 2016

Does Pikachu count as a visitor? Museums and engagement in the whirlwind of mobile gaming

We need to talk about Pokémon Go. In case you haven’t looked at the news lately, Pokémon Go has taken over everything. Here at the Alberta Museums Association office, we are not immune from the excitement, and as a staff we have discussed it in many ways. Some of us fell hard for the nostalgia of a favourite childhood game adapted for today. Others madly googled “what is Pokémon Go?”. We discussed the obvious safety concerns, as news stories erupted about the chaos ensuing from people wandering around staring at their phones and not looking where they are going. And of course, we watched with interest as museums around the world started buzzing about Pokémon in and around their buildings.

Technically, I am a Millennial, but I was a little too old to be drawn into Pokémon when it arrived in North America in the 1990s. My limited knowledge was picked up second hand from my younger brother’s obsession – when he got a dog for his tenth birthday, he named her Eevee (after a Pokémon). However, the rapid spread of the app, even in Canada where it is not officially available yet [edit: as of today, it is available Canada-wide!], is fascinating. The augmented reality aspect of the app has brought a game out of the basement and into public spaces. As a public historian, I am especially interested in the implications and possibilities for museums when people start visiting museums and other heritage sites in search of elusive Pokémon. 

Two camps have already emerged in the museum world in relation to Pokémon Go; those encouraging people to visit by showing off which Pokémon can be found at their museum, and those politely asking people to refrain from catching Pokémon at their museum.
The first camp is typified by groups and museums already heavily engaged with social media and technology. Museum Hack has jumped on Pokémon Go as a tool to get people into museums with the tagline “Gotta visit ‘em all” (a play on the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta catch ‘em all”), that works for the target demographic the app will bring into museums: the elusive Millennial. Pokémon Go has the potential to bring in swarms of Millennials looking for Pokémon to catch, and as a result, a good number of museums are using their own social media accounts to draw attention to the Pokémon that can be found in and around their institutions.

Whether or not museums are encouraging these users, they are getting them. Pokémon fanatics are showing up at museums, just as they are at parks, churches, malls, cemeteries, and other public places. This causes problems for museums that fall in the second camp and do not want visitors catching Pokémon in the galleries for a variety of reasons. One of the first museums to come out discouraging the use of the app within a site was, logically, the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. This museum has politely asked visitors to refrain from taking selfies in the past and is now asking visitors to refrain from catching Pokémon during their visit – a  request rooted in the reflective and somber nature of the subject matter on display at the museum. It is similar to calls from the Arlington Cemetery for visitors to stop catching Pokémon out of respect for the people buried there. These responses to Pokémon Go raise an important question for museums to consider when deciding to engage with this app:
  • Does the activity encouraged by the app complement and respect the subject matter of our institution?
Regardless of whether or not a museum decides to participate in the Pokémon Go craze, the type of visit the app encourages presents deeper questions for museums to consider about repeat visitors, audience development, and engagement.

Museums are experiencing an increase in visitors due to Pokémon Go; what remains to be seen is if these visitors will return without the promise of a virtual Pokémon to take home. The ability of museums to use the app as a means to create repeat visitors or a tool for audience development is unclear at this early stage. The longevity of interest in the app is also unknown at this point. Pokémon Go could develop a loyal following of users if it is maintained and updated regularly. However, it could also be a flash in the pan, a viral hit that gets high user numbers for a short time and then disappears from popular culture (anyone remember Pogs?). If the app develops a strong, long-term following, akin to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, then it could be worth it for museums to integrate it into programming and exhibitions. It could, under these circumstances, become a tool for audience development and a way to encourage repeat visitors. However, we can’t predict if this app will maintain its current popularity for years to come. With this in mind I would like to pose this question for comment:
  • Given the variable lifespan of apps and other digital tools, is it worth the investment of time and resources for museums to develop ways of merging this game into exhibitions and programs?
The other issue is around the nature of Pokémon Go driven visits. Museums strive to demonstrate their relevance and use by their communities, and often rely on qualitative data from the number of visitors through the doors, as well as social media interactions, for these key performance indicators. However, the other area in which relevance can be measured is less quantitative – through community engagement and addressing social needs. This aspect of relevance is difficult to measure, especially because it can take a significant amount of time to see the full return on engagement and social responsibility work.

Pokémon Go can be harnessed to increase the hard numbers of visitors to a museum. The drawback to the boost in qualitative data is that it does not necessarily reflect an engaged visitor experience. Yes, there are people who will come to the museum to catch a Pokémon, see something of interest and engage with what the museum has to offer, but there are others that will visit and only engage with the app. It is in this tension between increasing numbers and creating a site that engages the community leads to my next questions:
  • Should museums embrace a technology that can produce a marked increase in visitorship even if those visits are not sustainable?
  • Is it more important to get more people through the door, or to carefully engage with the community to create strong connections and repeat visits?
There are many other questions that arise when thinking about Pokémon Go in museums and we will not have answers to those questions until we know what the longevity of the app is. For now we can have engaging conversations about the potential of this and other technologies in museums. Who knows, maybe I’ll even give in and try to catch a few of these virtual critters myself.'

Lauren Wheeler
Program Lead
Alberta Museums Association

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Vending machines in schools -- yay or nay? A heated debate at the the Kneehill Historical Museum Mock Legislature

On Friday, May 13, the Kneehill Historical Museum, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Three Hills School, and local community members joined together to host a mini-mock legislature. I took a road trip to the town of Three Hills for a front row seat to the proceedings.

A class of grade six students from the nearby Three Hills School acted as elected representatives, with local MLA Nathan Cooper playing the double role of premier and instructor. Presiding over the event was Richard Marz, previously the Deputy Speaker, who played the role in his own authentic robe and hat. Students were arranged into the ‘Sagebrush’ party, who acted as the government, and the ‘Oiler’ party, who acted as the official opposition, along with two independents. The stage was set for a riveting debate. 
The topic: should vending machines be banned in schools?

The program was an enlightening breakdown of provincial parliamentary process, which can be difficult to understand, even for adults. ‘Speaker’ Marz outlined the procedural rules for the students, before MLA Nathan Cooper lead the students through the process of passing a Bill: first reading, committee, second and third readings, amendments, and finally, passage. Between each segment, Cooper took a moment to discuss the process and take questions from the students.

The students came prepared with talking points for or against the bill, and engaged in a lively debate. They were, at first, reluctant to step too far away from their speaking notes, but as the debate carried on they grew more impassioned. “Vending machines are an important source of revenue for our schools!” a member of the opposition would say, amid the hearty thumping of applause of his fellow mock MLA’s. “The health of our children is more important than money!” retorted a member of the government, who received an approving cheer from Cooper himself.

In the end, with amendments defeated and debate exhausted, the students took a final vote to pass the bill, before breaking for cookies and lemonade. Cooper then gave a history of the Legislative buildings, adding that it has a connection to the town of Three Hills and the Kneehill Historical Museum, and answered questions from the students on a variety of topics.

Through innovative programs such as this, the Kneehill Historical Museum has built their institution as a true community space. Thanks to the combined efforts of the museum, the Legislative Assembly, and a range of local community members, this innovative program provided all those involved with education, entertainment, and a renewed appreciation for the process of Canadian parliament. 

Andrew Dool
Alberta Museums Association

For more information on hosting a Mock Legislature, visit