Anyone visiting the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, soon realizes a museum doesn’t have to focus on deep, serious subjects to be worthy and relevant. As this 40-year-old attraction sprints towards opening a vibrant $65-million expansion in the summer 2023, it’s focused on furthering a vision of showing the crucial value of play for children—and adults.
“Play is universal,” Shane Rhinewald, the museum’s director of public relations tells Funworld. “It happens among all humans across history, geographies, and cultures. It’s also the way children, in particular, start to learn about their world and play a role in it. A museum about the history of play can tell us a lot about who we are as people and our values.”
The Strong tells its stories about play through its deep collection of toys, games, dolls, and video games. But the museum recognizes that to be complete, it must offer its guests plenty of opportunities to actually play. So the Strong is also an interactive museum where visitors can play their way through the history of pinball machines, stroll through a giant pop-up storybook, and even experience physical play on a high-ropes adventure course.
In this light, before embarking on its 90,000-square-foot expansion, the museum conducted extensive market research that showed it could add an additional 400,000 guests to its annual attendance of 600,000 by creating new space and offering a broader range of play activities, particularly with an additional focus on video games plus some things older demographics would enjoy. Therefore, the expansion will create a new home for the World Video Game Hall of Fame and two sizable exhibits that put an emphasis on technology and play.
Visitors will enter the expanded museum through a soaring glass atrium named the Portal of Play. They’ll see dozens of 3D-printed twinkling butterflies hanging in flight from the ceiling. A sizable portion of the expanded space will be devoted to video games, including an enormous Donkey Kong game.
“It will speak even more to an older audience,” says Rhinewald. “One side of ESL Federal Credit Union Digital Worlds, known as ‘Level Up,’ will offer guests the opportunity to create an avatar and jump into video game scenarios, which will include physical activities and solving puzzles. Adults will be just as apt to jump in as kids. The other side—High Score—will tell the story of the video game industry and highlight the future of technology and play.”
There are also two new play areas outdoors, with one featuring a 20-ton ball of granite that will seemingly float via hydrostatic pressure on a thin film of water. Visitors will be able to spin the ball by hand. The other outside play area features a fire-breathing dragon, à la the “Dungeons and Dragons” game by Hasbro, which partnered with the museum to design the space.
On its website, the museum quotes contemporary American psychologist Peter Gray, who said, “The drive to play freely is a basic biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of air, food, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.” Visitors who immerse themselves in the Strong National Museum of Play have no such worries.