PHONE ABUSE

Is Pokemon Go a Blessing or Curse for Historic Sites and Museums?

Game playing at the Holocaust Museum and similar sites has earned the ire of historians, but the real culprit—cellphones—could become a useful teaching tool.

07.13.16 7:22 PM ET

It's just a matter of time before we read stories of visitors to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City playing  Pokemon Go. Already the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington , D.C., have issued statements  reminding their visitors that these sites demand the utmost respect and requesting that they refrain from playing. Even the director of the National Park Service took time to send out a message reminding visitors that our national parks offer plenty to experience if they take the time to look up from their cellphones.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, you may want to get yourself up to date surrounding this new Pokemon craze before reading any further. Don't worry. I had to look it up as well.

We can all agree that there are certain historic sites and museums where it is inappropriate to play Pokemon Go, and we can agree that the game has the potential to disrupt any number of public events. But beyond a few scattered responses, I have yet to hear how historic sites and museums plan to take advantage of this new craze.

Surprisingly, few have acknowledged that the game has succeeded in doing what many historic sites and museums have failed to achieve even after expending significant energy and money on marketing. The game is not just bringing people to these locations; it is revealing places in their own neighborhoods that they quite possibly never knew existed. Regardless of whether it is alone or in groups, people are visiting historic sites and museums for the first time. This, in and of itself, is cause for celebration and very likely something that can be built upon.

I suspect that what explains some of the concern among site managers is that Pokemon Go players are not arriving out of a primary desire to learn history. One public historian shared that while the game may bring people to historic sites, she questioned "what kind of actual intellectual or even emotional engagement are people getting from these sites if they're glued to their cellphones the entire time and frantically searching for little cartoon characters?" It's a legitimate concern, but it does not warrant such an extreme response.

Historic site managers and staff expect or hope that their visitors will be serious, but perhaps more importantly, they want to be able to control their experience through various forms of programming that may include guided tours, movies, and other exhibits. Cellphones can enhance the visitor experience in any number of ways with mobile apps that offer primary documents such as letters, diaries, maps, photographs, and video. All of this supports the site's mission. In sharp contrast, Pokemon Go delivers the visitor, but not much else beyond a desire to continue the hunt.

There are reports that some Pokemon players are taking the time to learn about the places they visit. I suspect that those historic sites and museums whose interaction with the general public is framed around finding ways to meet people halfway will have the most success in helping visitors transition from an online scavenger hunt to an educational experience. The trick will be to find creative ways to engage these particular people, but it does not represent a unique challenge beyond the broader goal of engaging the general public.

Already we are seeing signs that some historic sites are trying to integrate the game into their programming. Park rangers at the National Mall and a few other sites in the National Park Service system are offering ranger-led tours that leave time for participants to play the game. Whether they will succeed in maintaining a healthy balance has yet to be seen, but there is every reason to be optimistic.

I have talked with employees and site managers who have expressed concern that more and more of their visitors have their eyes glued to their cell phones while exploring a particular historic location. I have experienced it firsthand during my own guided tours of Civil War battlefields. People think nothing of checking their Facebook feed, texting, or updating their Instagram and Twitter pages while at historic sites, including those places of great tragedy. The level of detachment and disrespect is sad to see and it is not confined in any way to children.

We would also do well to remember that Pokemon Go is not the first mobile app to raise behavioral concerns at historic sites. Consider the news out of Poland in 2014 in which a group of teenagers used the backdrop of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp to take selfies. Our cellphones provide us with powerful tools that allow us to share our visits to historic sites, but they also run the risk of placing the user at the center of the experience regardless of location and context. We would all do well to be more sensitive to how we utilize our cell phones in public, especially when around other people. Pokemon Go did not create this problem.

Like other advances in technology, the current craze surrounding Pokemon Go ought to be embraced by museums and historic sites even with all the real and potential problems. There are lessons to be learned. It will take some time to figure out the best way to take advantage of this particular game and the social experience that it has generated among its users, but that has been the challenge for practically every new digital tool introduced over the past decade.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is at work on Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.