Yesterday afternoon I found myself thinking, “I wonder if there are any Pokemon lurking at the museum?” What I was referring to is the Strauss Mansion, headquarters of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society which was built in 1893. A few hours later, the president of our board texted me asking what I knew, and if there was any way to set our place up as a “Pokestop”. I told her it was all random, where they pop up and what locations get assigned as various roles, but I would check it out. I swung by today and sure enough, our museum is a Pokestop…and I also caught two Pokemon while I was there. If you don’t know what Pokemon Go is, then you have probably been living under a rock for the last week. As this game sweeps the nation and the world, businesses have come up with ideas to turn game-players into customers. Some have offered meal deals for people who play at their restaurant, as well as encourage their location to be used as a safe spot. This notion needs to get museums and historic sites thinking along those same lines.
We are already promoting the use of Strauss Mansion as a Pokestop on our social media. With thousands of players locally, the opportunity to hopefully inspire them to visit our place, if only for a few moments, is too good to pass up. All museums struggle with two major problems (among others): 1) How do we attract new visitors? and 2) How do we get them to come back again? While the second one is the hardest of the two, the first is no easy feat either. A museum such as the Strauss Mansion attracts an overwhelmingly local clientele. We rotate exhibits as often as we can, and have a wide variety of events all year long, but getting people from even the next town over is sometimes quite difficult. After all, we are the historical society for Atlantic Highlands. There’s that, plus just a large percentage of people who do not like history and will not visit a museum, no matter what it is.
Enter Pokemon Go. Players young and old are wandering the streets trying to find these creatures in an augmented reality. It has already become an obsession, much like the card game was when I was in elementary school. People will stop at nothing to catch ’em all. Museums and historic sites must use this to their advantage. Admission to the Strauss Mansion is free, so this is not about the money. It is about numbers. If 1,000 people in town and nearby neighborhoods are playing and just half of them stop by our museum to catch a Pokemon, that would be 500 visitors who never would have come otherwise. If only 10% of those stay longer than five minutes and explore the museum and become interested, that is an added bonus. And of those 50, what if just three or four decide they really love what they see and want to learn more or become members and attend future events? Pokemon Go might be able to attract more visitors on one weekend with good weather than the previous six months combined.
This applies to both adults and children. The Strauss Mansion Museum already has a Junior Volunteer Team for high school students. Adult volunteers, of course, can never be too great in number. Anyone who has ever worked at a museum knows that. Luckily, this movement has people my age and even older playing. It would be ignorant and naive to call this strictly a “kid’s game”.
There can be a debate as to which locations might not be desirable for Pokemon Go. Obviously, the 9/11 Memorial and Holocaust Museum in New York City (where activity has been reported) are a no-go. You could even argue that a place like the Gettysburg battlefield would be distasteful. No matter what your opinion is on the game itself, you must realize the enormous opportunity that presents itself here. The National Park Service has already reported a spike in visitors due to this game. Give it more time, and there is no doubt that other historic sites will experience the same.
My message to historians and museum managers is this: do not be stuffy about this and dismiss it as an inappropriate and frivolous solution to boosting attendance. You do not have to love the game. You can hate it. You can think it is a total waste of time. But there are millions of people out there who are playing every single day and looking for new places to explore. Why should it not be your museum? This hysteria might fade away as just another fad in a few months, but whether that happens or not, the time is now. Embrace what this is and use it to your advantage. You just might be sorry if you let the potential masses slip away without catching ’em all.
Greg Caggiano is a historian and instructor at Brookdale Community College who serves on the board of directors of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. The Strauss Mansion Museum is located at 27 Prospect Circle.