Strong Museum is a Great Excuse to Visit Rochester

The Strong Museum of Play
Rochester, New York

Rochester seldom appears on lists of great tourist destinations. In the eyes of many, it’s just another small played-out postindustrial city with oversized urban problems. In truth, it’s well worth a visit. In late August I posted a piece on the delightful George Eastman House and Museum. Rochester also has tranquil walks along the water-filled Erie Canal, beaches along Lake Ontario, a sweet minor league baseball stadium, a Frederick Douglass monument, and the Susan B. Anthony House. But if that doesn’t convince you, try this: the Strong Museum of Play.

I haven’t had this much youthful fun since I actually was a youth. The museum began life as a monetary and collection donation from philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong in 1969. It has grown since then, an understatement if ever there was one. These days we are talking mega big–as in 13.5 acres and over 285,000 square feet of buildings. It’s been so successful that new parking garages and exhibition spaces are in the works that will double the existing size.

It is as advertised, a museum devoted to how Americans, especially children, have played. You name it and it’s there. First of all, it houses both the National Toy Hall of Fame and the National Video Game Hall of Fame. They work like any other Hall of Fame, which is to say there are committees whose members mull over nominations and vote on which toys are worthy of inclusion. You can find the complete list online and you’ll notice it includes everything from Barbie to Mr. Potato Head, the Teddy Bear, Checkers, Big Wheels, Silly Putty, and the cardboard box. All of the winners are displayed in cases within the Hall of Fame area. There’s a separate hall for video games, plus the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

As the saying goes, but wait, there’s more. There’s also a butterfly garden, an exhibit devoted to D.C. Superheroes, and archives should you tire of fun and decide you positively must do academic research! Okay, I’m being snarky on the last one. Actually, this place takes play seriously and even publishes the Journal of Play. And why not? Why on earth should work be treated more seriously than play and recreation–especially in a postindustrial city? If you want to get philosophical, in a saner society the very point of work would be to secure time and resources to play.

If my previous comment strikes you as trite or na├»ve, reserve judgment until you’ve strolled among the cases of America at Play. It is the heart of the museum. It is a time capsule of how Americans have entertained themselves from time immemorial. You cannot help overhearing remarks such as, “I had that toy!” and “Oh my, I haven’t thought about that game for years.” Chances are good you will be among those making such exclamations. It’s all there: board games, improvised toys, dolls, sporting goods, model airplanes, novelty banks, sleds, bicycles, and so on. I instantly time warped upon seeing Lionel trains, Operation, and Rock 'em Sock 'em robots. There are more than half a million items overall, including fads that soared like the Hula Hoop and those that bombed such as the oh-so-lame attempt at making an electric football game. The goal of the last, insofar I could ever determine, was to waste time lining up 11 players on each side, flipping a switch that made the board vibrate, and watching the figures fall over. On the other hand, I saw a medieval knights and castle set that I had when I was in first grade that sparked my earliest love of history.

The Strong is also loaded with interactive kiosks and oversized sites where you can do activities such as engage a Rube Goldberg machine, play Twister, send Hot Wheels down a chute and maze, or allow a large Etch-a-Sketch to draw your profile. It’s not just children who squeal with delight at these attractions. If anything, adults need to be self-disciplined enough not to bogart the play stations.

Some might be bothered by the overt commercialism on display at the Strong. The most distressing of these is a Wegman’s where youngsters push carts through aisles and place plastic groceries in a cart before “checking out” and getting their “bill.” This one raised my hackles, but I lowered them while perambulating the America at Play section. The truth is that play has long been commercialized, as you can see in board games that were gendered and class-based. “The Dating Game” should have made Phyllis Schlafly into a feminist, but there have long been games that subtly indoctrinated some children to become tycoons and others to pursue a career as an office boy.

But enough of that. As I remarked to my wife and my friend Tim several times while smiling and laughing my way through the Strong: “It’s impossible to be cynical about this place.” If I’m wrong about that, I shall insist that I don’t know you!

If you want to see more images from this museum, go to the photo file marked "Gems from the Strong Museum"

Rob Weir  


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