This year nearly 600,000 guests will visit The Strong and its National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. With plenty to delight the senses and exercise the muscles they won’t have a passive experience. The museum offers opportunities to climb, to negotiate a tilted room for comical perspective, to compete in side-by-side dragsters and pilot an indoor helicopter, to ride a carousel and spin in its “love tub,” or to follow reef fish and interact with nature even in winter with butterflies in an indoor garden itself shaped as a butterfly.
To most guests, the interactive exhibits will look like those at a children’s museum or a science museum. But The Strong’s National Museum of Play is a history museum with play and culture as its centerpiece and play and discovery its educational method. And so the museum is a playground for the mind as well as the body.
Playful subjects proved crucial in inviting exhibit developers to design the museum as a garden of intellectual delights. And so if the subject is comic books (and the museum’s library holds a very large collection of comic books), then the exhibit — American Comic Book Heroes: The Battle of Good vs. Evil — follows the moral narrative of our Superheroes who tell us so much about what we have valued and feared. When the topic is children’s literature, the exhibit — Reading Adventureland — features a giant walk-in pop-up book where genres come to life; an upside-down house for “nonsense;” a pirate ship for “adventure;” a wizard’s workshop for “fantasy;” and a yellow-brick road that leads to a Fairy Tale Forest where kids empower themselves moving the arms of a 15-foot-tall giant.
These experiences will follow guests home. All the exhibits include comfortable book nooks for reading aloud stocked with shelves of books available for checking out with a local library card.
The Strong also publishes a scholarly journal: the American Journal of Play, a truly interdisciplinary venture that for the last five years showcased the diverse work of the historians, neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, mathematicians, anthropologists, physicians, folklorists, and philosophers who study this complex and serious subject, play.
To help it follow a central mission to trace play as it has evolved over the course of the history of the United States, The Strong has a collection that numbers nearly half-a-million objects and chronicles how we Americans have amused ourselves, how we’ve lost ourselves in play, and how we’ve found ourselves in the process of playing. For example, if you ask your friends who they are, they might admit to an identity as a golfer, quilter, skier, or biker. And so the clubs, quilts, skis, bikes, and thousands of other artifacts remind us of our delight in play and its central role in our lives.
At The Strong’s National Museum of Play the subject is the object, and the medium is the method. In this museum learning sneaks upon you playfully and stealthily.