The Strong-est Story Ever Told

In his recent interview in the American Journal of Play—“The Why, How, and What of a Museum of Play”—George Rollie Adams, President and CEO, describes the evolution of The Strong as the first collections based institution devoted to the study of play. Trained as teacher and historian and with the skill of an author, Adams narrates the remarkable history of an institution that “too few people cared about” at its low point in the mid 1980s when he arrived and that now is a much transformed and busy attraction that hosts nearly ten times as many guests.

It’s a story very well worth reading for anyone who would like to know the place better, but especially for museum colleagues, teachers and school officials, city planners, organizational change coaches, and business students. Adams shows how, over the years where attendance fell elsewhere, a series of breakthroughs drove the museum’s pursuit of relevance and appeal to the greater audiences and enlarged mission it could best serve and follow. Changes at The Strong provide several textbook examples.

Becoming The Strong entailed nearly doubling the size of its National Museum of Play, whittling down irrelevant collections, while adding others, building the whole back up again to about 400,000 play-related items, founding Woodbury Preschool, establishing the comprehensive International Center for the History of Electronic Games and the 140,000-volume Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, acquiring and growing the National Toy Hall of Fame, opening the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, and founding the American Journal of Play that publishes historians, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, and many others. Almost 600,000 visit the museum in downtown Rochester each year now, more than the home gate of all but a half dozen NFL teams, Adams observes with some satisfaction, as well he should. It’s a remarkable achievement in a metro area that numbers scarcely twice as large.

Play drives The Strong onward and upward. In the interview, Adams notes how the museum loosens up adults as kids gives them permission to play at craft activities, “shop” at the kid-sized supermarket, read the storybooks available for library checkout, tame a giant, pilot an indoor helicopter, play a vintage video arcade game, share memories about the artifacts, and so on and on. “Grandparents love to bring their grandkids here to play,” Adams notes, “young couples come on dates, and young parents even come for nights out without their children.”

In the process, Adams contends, parents discover by playing how important play is both to kids’ strong development and, not incidentally, also to how important play is in accounting for the changes in American culture. Adams, who loves baseball and in the interview talks some about his formative experiences playing in rural Arkansas, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson by way of summing up, “It’s a happy talent to know how to play.”

You might say that this story about how an institution rose from local obscurity to regional prominence and national regard has had a happy ending—were it not for the palpable “to-be-continued” energy of the place. At The Strong a sharp-eyed staff is always looking to find what’s next for guests and readers, for creative exhibit technique, for innovative teaching methods, for new scholarship. “We believe emphatically that to remain successful, organizations have to keep moving forward,” Adams concludes.