Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sending Collections on the Road: Geocaching and Museums

I’ve received a few inquiries over the last year about museums and geocaching. So I felt lucky last week to learn not only about an innovative arts exhibition employing geocaching, but to discover that its exhibit developer, Seth! Leary, is something of an expert. I sat down with Seth! to ask him all the dumb questions about geocaching and museums you can imagine… and a few more.

Geocaching Basics

Geocaching is an activity in which people (geocachers) use GPS receivers to hunt down specific locations (geocaches). The geocaches have items inside: goodies to take home, trade for stuff you’ve brought with you, or transport to new locations. Many geocaches have a paper log inside so that geocachers can write down when they found the cache, what they took/left inside, who they are, etc. Some people use a higher-tech logging system by tracking the items online to see who has found them and where they’ve gone. is a clearinghouse for thousands of items, geocaches, and geocachers, or as Seth! puts it, “MySpace for inanimate objects.”

Thousands of people geocache for a variety of reasons: to explore new places, to have outdoor adventures, to search for surprises out in the world. Seth! commented that the demographic of people who are involved is much broader than you’d think, including lots of families looking for a fun, educational, free activity.

Sounds like there might be some overlap with your museum audience? Both geocaching and museums are fundamentally about exploration and discovery. Both relate to the human drive to collect stuff. Both attract locals and tourists who may travel out of their way for the thrill of collecting another place or experience. And in an industry where many of us are scratching our heads about intelligent uses of technology that don’t tie visitors to computer terminals, geocaching stands out as an activity that is mediated by technology but also promotes exercise and outdoor activity.

The Bellevue Sculptural Travel Bugs Project

This summer, Seth! worked with the city of Bellevue, WA, to incorporate geocaching and user-generated content into their public sculpture exhibition to put a new spin on the concept of “public art.” As Seth! explains:
The city of Bellevue, Washington holds a public art sculpture exhibition every couple of years. For a related teen project, I was invited to teach roughly 200 middle- and high-school students about geocaching (a GPS-based scavenger hunt) so that they could send miniature sculpture pieces out into the world. The process is somewhat involved, but fairly simple. Each student would create a fist-sized sculpture piece (of recycled or renewable materials; the theme was "green") and the sculpture would get a Travel Bug tag with a unique serial number. The sculptures then get placed in a geocache where members of the public (geocachers) can pick them up and move them to another geocache. The little works of art then travel around the region, transferred from person to person via the hidden geocaches. Each leg of their journey gets logged online by the geocachers so that a continuous travelogue is created, including any photos that the geocachers choose to post. The sculptures then make their way back to City Hall (hopefully) where they are displayed in an exhibit that will be up until October. Traveling public art! Each geocacher is a curator and registrar and art appreciator along the way.
The “travel bugs” that Seth! refers to are dog tags with unique serial numbers on them that geocachers can use to track items easily online. You can check out the path of some of the teen sculptures here. Click on a sculpture, and you’ll automatically be taken to the page for that item, and if you scroll to the bottom, you can see the path the sculpture has taken thus far. Some of the people who picked up the sculptures intuited “goals” for the sculptures, such as this hungry whale sculpture which was taken to the aquarium for a photo shoot by one energetic geocacher, and later went to the “travelbug hospital” at another benevolent person’s home for repairs.

These 200 teen sculptures are being released in stages, with the hope that most or all will find their way back to City Hall by the end of the exhibition in October. Some are already on display along with the stories of their travels from City Hall and back again.

I asked Seth! what challenges came with this project. He talked about the volume of sculptures—that with 200 pieces going out from one location, it was tough to energize the local geocaching community to really get each of the sculptures moving on an interesting narrative. And indeed, some of the sculptures haven’t gone far since they were first launched from City Hall.

Seth! also talked about the importance of marketing events and programs like these specifically to the geocaching community. There are robust community discussion boards on the Web for geocachers as well as state and local associations. Because taking up geocaching is not entirely casual (you need to invest in the GPS receiver), it’s important to energize locals in that subculture for a project like this to succeed.

Here’s what I love about this project:

  • It expands the audience for the sculpture exhibition. It engages subculture of demographically mixed folks (geocachers) with a museum-related art activity that they might not otherwise have been drawn to.
  • It sends art out instead of locking it in. This is a project that breaks down the walls of the exhibition and gets the collection out on the road into the community.
  • It invites people to engage with collections in a new way. The person who picks up a whale sculpture and takes it to the aquarium is having an active, two-way relationship with it. Geocachers value their finds and care for them, direct their travel, and write their own narratives into the items.
  • It plugs into a ready-made, programmatic, technology-mediated activity at very little technical or financial cost to the institution. All Seth! had to do was purchase the travel bugs ($5 apiece, to track the sculptures), launch the sculptures from a registered geocache, and set up the individual item pages on From that point on, it was geocachers with their own GPS receivers who found the sculptures, logged their stories, and kept them moving.
Geocaching and You?

Like many others, before talking to Seth! I’d perceived geocaching as a complex, expensive activity: a dubious fit for a museum. But after learning more from Seth! and from the resources at, I’ve been converted to think of geocaching as a fun way to engage visitors with collections, place, and technology.
I asked Seth! how he would recommend museums get involved with geocaching. He offered these ideas:
First, get someone on your staff to try finding a cache. Like any technology, you should try it first to see what it’s about so you get a sense for how it works. It’s very easy; you can go onto, type in your zip code or address, and you’ll probably find a few caches within miles of your home. You’ll need a GPS receiver (some smartphones do this now) and maps are useful.

Then, determine your goal – why do you want to do this with visitors? There are lots of possible reasons. It could be to hold programs or camps to help people understand the GPS technology, like orienteering. Or the technology could be incidental and you could just be encouraging people to go out and experience certain areas of the community. You could launch your own items (I’d recommend doing just a few unique ones) with travel bugs and assign them goals: travel to another museum, or move every 24 hours, or whatever would serve your interest and make a fun game. If you had just a few compelling items, you could really get enough players interested to rally.

But if you want something easier than sending out items, the simplest way for museums to use geocaching is just to place one. Make a nice geocache and hide it on the grounds, somewhere that is hidden but easily accessible without trampling the shrubs. Then, post a well-planned geocache page to go with it. Add some history about the museum or the area. Geocaches cannot be "commercial" so one has to be careful about over-promoting on the web site. But simply having a presence on with a cache will bring visitors to the door. This is especially helpful for small museums that might get overlooked by out of town visitors or even the locals. This is a pretty low-effort project on the part of the museum but can have fun results.

History museum or other locally-themed museums might make a project for volunteers or teens that involves gathering waypoints (coordinates) for places of interest and then putting together a virtual map/tour. The waypoints could be put into a file (.gpx or .loc) which can then be downloaded by users who would go out to visit the sites. It might be accompanied by a podcast, so it becomes a city-wide audio tour!

I know there are several geocaching enthusiasts in the museum community. I’d love to hear your stories of why you do it and how you’d like to see it happen in museums. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities? And how close is the closest geocache to your house? You may be surprised (I know I was)!

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I love geocaching! My dad got into in a couple of months ago and so we all pitched in and bought him a hand held GPS receiver for his birthday, and then we became addicted too! The most fun is to go out with my 8 year old cousin and "treasure hunt." We have found some interesting things in geocaches, or been taken to interesting locations. I feel geocaching is about exploring your local surroundings (or not so local surroundings) in a way you never would have before. For example, we were looking for a geocache placed in a howitzer cannon at a local park. I have driven by that location a million times and never noticed it was a Vietnam war memorial. It was nice to fine the geocache, but even nicer to learn something new about my community that I may have kept passing by otherwise. In museums geocaches could be used as a sort of "self-guided" tour. The visitor could borrow a GPS unit and a list of geocache coordinates on the museum grounds. They would then be able to search the museum grounds for the geocaches, and in the process discover exhibits, instillations or other museum assets that they may have otherwise passed by.

Scott Morris said...

I love this idea. Another similar activity (but more low-tech) is called letterboxing. (checkout for more info).

I work at a museum and we have letterboxing set up, it has brought people to the museum that wouldn't normally come, so its pretty fun for them and they get to look aroound while they are here!

Craney said...

G'day Nina,

We found a geocache on one of our outside exhibits at Questacon! It's still there not harming anyone :-)


erin said...

Thanks for posting. Our University museum is developing a similar program for incoming freshmen to get familiar with the local community, the campus and its 140 year history. Our campus is one of a few universities participating in the iKnow Initiative from Apple, so the students all have GPS-able iPhones. Perfect for NO budget! Do you have any recommendations/resources about doing this on a college campus?

Thanks again!

Grace said...

Nina, do you have an idea of how many museums participate in geocaching?