Strong National Museum of Play

Last week I had the opportunity to conduct research at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. The trip was really terrific–I learned so much from the objects and written materials I was able to look at, and I also had a great time at the Museum itself. I initially discovered the Strong Museum a few years ago when investigating institutions with collections that pertained to my research areas–19th-century optical toys and cultures of childhood. Founded by Margaret Woodbury Strong, a woman who amassed collections of thousands of dolls, playthings, and other objects in her lifetime, the Museum is now organized around the mutable concept of play, which can be cast variously as developmental, social, neurologically stimulating, and simply fun activity. The Museum’s tremendous scope and magnitude reflect this notion that play is an encompassing idea, one fundamental to both human and animal life.

The exhibitions are amazing; there are seemingly endless halls filled with interactive play environments. Kids can climb aboard pirate ships, enter the Berenstein Bears’ domain, step into a Victorian parlor, visit a corner of Sesame Street, shop at Wegman’s grocery store, or send mail through the post office. There’s a huge kaleidoscope you can walk through, paired with an area where you can experiment with different colors and shapes and mirrors and light. However, the Museum has so much more to offer than plastic play surfaces. Interspersed amongst these environments are really thoughtfully curated artifacts that give a richer perspective on play. In an adventure-themed area, sort of like a woodsy forest, a classic children’s adventure book is side by side in a glass case with a playable version of the classic video game Pitfall. Near the Nintendo wii, set up for use, there’s a small display comparing the design aesthetic of the Nintendo Mii with the Japanese Kokeshi doll. The Sesame Street area, calling attention to the 40th anniversary of the show’s first broadcast in 1969, is adjascent to a case filled with other decidedly non-Sesame Street-related artifacts from 1969, offering a much broader perspective of the political and cultural climate of the time. These juxtapositions were great, and seemed really carefully considered. Imagine my glee when I noticed this great pairing:

The Museum is also home to the National Toy Hall of Fame, an [architecturally] impressive structure that houses a hall of classic playthings, ranging from Legos and the Slinky, to the Stick and the Cardboard box. Here’s a photograph of the hall, which fails to do justice to its grandeur.

And what a great way to display the Slinky. These stairs were made with almost foolproof specifications for the slinky to bounce down them with ease.

The Museum’s design also seemed to manage the chaos that might result in such a stimulating atmosphere. Granted, I was there midweek (I can only imagine what the place looks like during school holidays) and loud and boisterous play is certainly an important component of what the Museum is about, but the space is also organized to accommodate the contemplative side of play as well. Peppered throughout the galleries are little reading nooks, typically designed to correspond to the surrounding area’s general theme. The reading nooks (kept as clean and inviting as the rest of the Museum) each feature comfortable seating with several shelves of books, again often featuring genres of books that match the area of the Museum. So if visitors feel like a quiet moment, there’s abundant opportunity to pursue some solitude and get lost in a book. And the best part? You can check the books out! The Museum has partnered with the county library. You can get a card there if you don’t have one, check books out, and even return them to other branches. For me, this represented a really sincere cultural partnership. The fact that visitors can actually take the books with them if they find themselves immersed is really neat.

As for the research, I had such a great experience. I knew that the Museum had a lot of materials that were relevant to my project, and that they would likely be scattered across various departments and categorized in all sorts of places. The curatorial staff member with whom I worked was extremely generous with her time, both before and during my visit. We collaborated to come up with a list related artifacts, which we revised many times, even as I began looking at the materials. Many of the objects are quite fragile. Optical devices are particularly funny to work with in archival settings, because they need to be seen from different angles, to be held up to the eye, and to be manipulated. All of this was managed with patience, and I was so grateful to be able to spend so much time looking at things. My experience in the library was also phenomenal. The Museum’s Director of the Library and Archives also found me a variety of really interesting primary sources, as well as a few very hard to track down secondary sources. The library environment was really comfortable and quiet, and I found myself really able to spend a lot of time focusing on these documents. One day when I returned from my lunch break, I found that the curator had dropped by and left me a clipping file she’d found that was full of a lot of really interesting items gathered over the years. It was a really excellent and productive visit. My only regret is going to the Strong Museum at a relatively early stage of my project, because I’m not sure that other research sites will be nearly as fun.

Strong National Museum of Play

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