Ever since I found out that something called a “museum of play” existed — and that it also housed the National Toy Hall of Fame — I knew it was a place I would have to see. Located in Rochester, New York, the Strong National Museum of Play is huge — nearly 300,000 square feet— and filled with hands-on exhibits that encourage youngsters to learn through play. But it is also the only museum in the country devoted to the study of play as it illuminates American culture. Which means that in addition to being fun it also gives visitors, especially older kids and adults, plenty to think and wax nostalgic about.
From the outside, the brightly-colored museum has wings designed to look like a pile of gigantic building blocks, an undulating caterpillar, and well, wings (the museum’s indoor butterfly garden). Inside there are over a dozen major permanent play spaces, as well as a changing array of special temporary displays like the new National Geographic Maps exhibit which runs through January. We stopped by this past summer on a rainy afternoon, which made it clear that what one local parent told us was true: If you’re in Rochester and you have kids, you are going to end up living here. The place was packed, meaning there were many exhibits we only got to see from afar.
Nevertheless, we got to sample a few gems. My husband and sons headed straight for the American Comic Book Heroes exhibit, featuring “life-size” models of Superman, Batman and the Hulk. Special effects make it look like kids are climbing up walls or developing super strength after being zapped with secret rays. And there are displays explaining the history of comics in America.
I was mightily impressed by the enormous Super Kids Market, with real working scanners at the child-size check-out counters and an area where kids can produce their own commercials and cooking shows. Reading Adventureland included giants, dragons, trolls, an Adventure Island with caves and a pirate ship to explore, and the Fairy Tale Forest featuring artifacts like Snow White’s apple and Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. For local residents, the museum is also a library branch, and there are books and quiet reading nooks throughout the museum.
The National Toy Hall of Fame within the Strong Museum is a place to both learn about the background of old favorites and a place to try them out. Past inductees include LEGO bricks, Barbie, Silly Putty and Slinky. Last year’s selections were the ball, Big Wheel, and Game Boy. But the museum also includes aisles and aisles of cases packed with fondly-remembered and collectible toys, and displays putting them into context in American life.
The Strong Museum is also looking forward to the future of play with the creation of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, and a new exhibit opening in November called eGameRevolution. I’ll be writing about our sneak peek in a later post!