Pokémon Go: Games, Art, and Open Spaces at the Museum

'Guess what! Our building is a PokéStop!'
'There are Pokémon all over the galleries!'
'My friend caught a rare Tauros near the Pleistocene Skeleton sculpture.'

Shortly after its release, colleagues began playing Pokémon Go —an augmented reality game that has captured the imagination of the entire internet. Museum visitors were doing the same. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, new games are often received with more enthusiasm than might be expected of an art museum. Perhaps you've heard, SAAM has a long history with games. Creating, collecting, exhibiting, and, of course, playing them. They're fun, they're often beautiful, and best of all, they connect people.

Community Mural
Community Mural (Detail)

Left: PokéStop: The Lost Pleiad. Right: The Lost Pleiad in SAAM's gallery.

We often see people walking around our galleries with their phones out, ready to capture photos of the artwork. As a social media manager, I'm interested in ways people communicate their museum experience online, to their friends, family, and community. Usually that sharing is mediated by Instagram or Facebook. Increasingly, people are doing that on the spot via their phones. They're reflecting on their visit and connecting with people virtually while standing in the galleries.

So how does Pokémon Go fit into this? It's an augmented reality game, a social network, and way for people to explore the world around them. Players are discovering new places, accidentally exercising, and meeting new people. Right now it's on track to surpass Twitter in daily active users.

With six PokéStops in and around the building, players of Pokémon Go know that SAAM is an ideal place to play this game. If they climb the steps and open the door, a first-time visitor will soon realize that free admission allows them to roam the halls. Players can catch a Doduo near our Jenny Holzer, spot a Paras basking in the glow of Megatron/Matrix, or corner a Zubat as it appears to zoom out of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.

Community Mural
Community Mural (Detail)
Community Mural (Detail)

Left: Pokémon in SAAM's galleries. Left: Dpdip (screenshot by Francis Acupan). Middle: Paras. Right: Zubat.

Increasingly, museums say they want to be open spaces for people. At SAAM, we hope everyone —art experts, hobbyists, or people who have never studied art— feels comfortable walking in the doors. Some do, but certainly not everyone. Given the nature of the PokéStops, most of which are historic markers, monuments, public buildings, and artworks, Pokémon Go encourages players to explore the world around them. At SAAM, it's an invitation to walk inside a building full of art. Maybe it’s the new experience of a first visit, or perhaps it adds a new layer for those well familiar with our museum.


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