Regardless of age, “Wow!” is what everyone is likely to say when entering, experiencing and leaving the newly expanded Strong – National Museum of Play in Rochester.
You don’t have to be a kid, or even the relative of one, to enjoy this excitingly re-envisioned venue. You might want to avoid the place if you have a low tolerance for noise or have a traditional definition of “museum” that includes formal, static viewing of masterful artwork and eschews activity, fun, interactivity and little kids having a blast, but you’d be missing a delightful experience. Just watching children and their adults (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends, older siblings, educators, nannies and babysitters) throughout the open, brightly lit and colorful space will warm the day and melt the heart of the grouchiest curmudgeon. This place has an amazing environment and is a huge plus for the Rochester region.
Recent renovations and expansions to the Strong Museum, which was best known for Margaret Woodbury Strong’s collections of dollhouses and toys, have created the nation’s second largest children’s museum and the world’s only museum dedicated to the study and interpretation of play. (Those collections, which the museum calls the world’s most comprehensive collections of toys, dolls and play-related artifacts, are still on hand, on the upper floor. The museum still houses the National Toy Hall of Fame, which has its own space in the new “caterpillar” atrium.) To match its expanded vision and focus, the new entity is almost twice the size of the original museum.
The redesigned exterior alone is worth a look. At what was the original front of the building (Chestnut Street), the one-of-a-kind structure now features two huge, sculptural constructions that look like gigantic, transparent caterpillars; one is filled with greenery and fluttery things from afar that turn out to be hundreds of lovely butterflies from within. At what was the rear and now is the parking lot and new entrance, building block-like structures in red, white and blue concrete (with plans for more color to be added over time) will house Field of Play, an original exhibit on the importance of play. Even architecturally, this space says “Fun!”
Play and Learn
Reopened just this past summer, the museum was seeing 3,000 visitors a day by early fall. It offers activities that can only be called wide-ranging. It’s part of the Monroe County Library System, so books are incorporated into every exhibit, many from the original Strong archives, and visitors can even check out books, as well as read them or act them out while at the museum. The Reading Adventureland is the museum’s largest and most ambitious exhibit. It’s a permanent section with five areas of its own, connected by a Yellow Brick Road. Each area offers a “literary landscape” inspired by children’s literature. The focus on literature extends throughout much of the museum with a history of literature, using books and toys from the Strong collection to show how stories for children have evolved over time, from early, scary, cautionary tales and old-fashioned primers to more gentle – yet sophisticated – works of contemporary times. Small-scale displays of books matched to timely toys and artifacts are tucked into almost every corner of the museum. Some of the historic references are a bit tongue-in-cheek, which adults accompanying young visitors should enjoy.
As part of the museum’s emphasis on play as a learning experience, there’s a preschool on the premises (all 56 spots are full for the current academic year). The museum hosts scouting and school groups, with a variety of services for educators as well.
Physical play and activity have their day, too, with a Bouldering Wall and Super Grip Tester.
You’ll Want to See This
The loveliest section, especially for older visitors, has to be the indoor, atrium-style Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden – the first and only such facility in the state. This climate-controlled space is limited to 35 to 40 people at a time in 20-minute time frames. It’s an additional $3 per person. Inside, butterflies aren’t just on display; there are 800 of them, zooming and floating and even landing on people. Just imagine your child’s reaction to a real, live butterfly sitting on an outstretched hand or tipped-up nose! There are display cases, too, full of caterpillars and chrysalises in various stages of growth and emergence, with a support greenhouse next door to replenish nectar sources for the butterflies’ palates. Despite the humidity of the rainforest environment, the butterfly conservatory is a marvelous photo opportunity for those who know how to adjust their cameras to the “weather” conditions.
Outside the conservatory, an interactive touch-screen lets kids follow the migratory path of the museum’s mascot, Marti the Monarch, from Rochester to Mexico, a world map shows where butterflies can be found all over the world, and an interactive electronic shadow screen makes it looks as if butterflies are emerging from chrysalides and landing on the viewer.
The butterfly garden isn’t the only live display at the National Museum of Play – there’s also a Rainbow Reef aquarium with fish and other marine animals.
More to Explore
Throughout the museum, there are dress-up sections where children can act out stories from the books provided or of their own creation. They can build a castle of their own and perform plays in the theater, either acting themselves or using puppets. They can write their own stories, whether for reading or performing. There’s even a post office.
Because Margaret Woodbury Strong loved gardens and flower arranging (a wall exhibit about her includes certificates and awards she earned for her gardening and arrangements), the museum includes plenty of nature play. An outdoor Discovery Garden is almost complete and will include butterfly-attracting plants to complement the indoor area. (There are even tentative plans for programs for seniors in the afternoons.)
The blend of new with old can be seen in the creative way that books and toys from the collections are included throughout the space, as well as the fact that the beloved Strong Express Train is still chugging along, the Allan Herschell Carousel is still available for a spin, and the TimeLab and Sesame Street displays are still on hand. The second floor features familiar exhibits about collecting, gizmos, immigration, outdoor play, pastimes and hobbies, and even “When Barbie Dated G.I. Joe.”
The most popular exhibit in the place is the mini-Wegmans grocery store. Kids run the whole store – shopping, stocking shelves, checking out – using real product packages, complete with barcodes. This section includes a place for kids to do their own TV cooking show, along with “activity bags” to use as starting points for making up games of their own.
There’s one general gift shop, with educational but fun toys, games and products, and one shop related just to the butterflies. Sustenance is available from the familiar Bill Gray’s Skyline Diner and, in the new food court, Taco Bell Express, Subway, Pizza Hut Express and Louie’s Sweet Shop.
Local boosters will be glad to hear that the $37 million expansion was designed by Rochester architectural firm Chaintreuil Jensen Stark and that M/E engineering, PC, mechanical/electrical engineering consultants and Manning Squires Hennig general contractors were among the vendors used for the project. Environmentalists also will be pleased; the expansion is in compliance with the latest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, with architecture, construction, energy systems and management practices all in line with LEED conservation standards.
Keeps on Growing
This is only the beginning. Plans call for publishing a series of books about play and launching a national scholarly museum on the subject, as well as hosting symposia. A partnership with Sesame Workshop (as in “Sesame Street”), which already yielded a popular traveling children’s exhibit, will continue. Through a partnership with the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF), the museum will house and care for CCF’s collection of handmade toys from children in poverty-stricken parts of the world. Jan and Michael Berenstain, authors of the Berenstain Bears children’s books, will create two new exhibits.
All in all, the newly refashioned Strong – National Museum of Play truly lives up to its name and promises to be a wonderful resource for Rochesterians, as well as other visitors from near and far. Go play today!
by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a nationally published freelance writer/editor and a Rochester native with fond memories of the old Strong Museum. She can be reached via her website, www.writerruth.com.