Strong National Museum of Play

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jason Jay Stevens

Published on October 01, 2009, Modified on October 20, 2009

  • Description:

    Strong National Museum of Play

    I came to visit Rochester’s Museum of Play on a sunny, balmy summer afternoon. Attendance was brimming, significantly with children and groups of accompanying adults. Engagement was high along every vector. There is a lot to do and see.

    Earlier during my stay in town, in conversations with local folks, I heard at least a couple voices of concern regarding the growth and direction of this museum, including an allegation that it has resolutely betrayed the institution’s founding spirit. Indeed, an entry wall at the Museum attests that founder Margaret Woodbury Strong (‘97-’69), a great collector and local eccentric, was and most certainly remains deeply adored by the upstate New York community. Of course, for an institution to evolve from a personal collection into modern science center requires all kinds of change, systemwide. As a matter of nature, identities of community institutions transmute as they mature; the deepest roots are sometimes left behind. I like to think of this as an opportunity; an old niche opened for something new to fill.

    Of more concern to me, critically, was the degree to which consumerism might be promoted, especially with regards to sponsors. A museum filled with toys offers a wealth of possibilities, obviously, and as a fellow who frequently cites a childhood filled with meaningful fun had with simple sticks and stones, I would be particularly sensitive to subliminal industry marketing pitches.

    The Museum of Play falls into the category of science center, but as much as any, it presents a sweeping alternative to science pedagogy. It’s didactic is solely— dogmatically and enervatingly— play. Of the running narrative themes, there is some suggestion of a greater, cultural, anti-play epidemic, to which the Museum of Play is a response. It’s an ironic tone for a shrine of toys, and as conspiratorial a call to “buy more now” as I found here. Inasmuch as the narrative requires an “other,” those mean little mole-men who turn children into slaves to operate their repetitive soul-numbing machines will suffice.

    Favorably, technology, featured throughout, is almost always aptly presented from a social perspective. How humans gather around these things is treated as least as important than how they work.

    Exhibit-wise, a few unique twists on old stand-bys are to be found, including a big, rambling, interactive ball and chutes that is networked through the ceiling of one gallery. Videotopia, a seemingly-endless video arcade full of classic games, is a surefire smash. The shining innovation in this exhibition is that the only way for visitors to receive more of the tokens needed to play the games is via a console determined to stump you with honest science and history questions—and they weren’t easy!

    The Dance Party exhibit is by far the best use of Tannenbaum’s common curiousity. In this case, all out play is an indisputable virtue. No products needed to shake your booty, and the visualisation effects take dancing in the mirror to the psychedelic level.

    Finally, there was no closing announcement as we come to expect in a museum, but calls to join a cacophonous Goodbye Parade which marches through the galleries rounding up visitors, and must be the finest way to wrap up a day at a place like this.

    Shout out that the building is LEED certified. Kudos.

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