Play Stuff Blog

A Museum is Born  

If you’re one of the more than half-million visitors to The Strong museum each year, you may have spotted the gallery wall about the life of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong en route to the admissions desk (and later, when you mosey back over to the food court). The museum in its current state grew out of the original collections of dolls, dollhouses, and other playthings amassed and cherished by Margaret Woodbury Strong during her lifetime. Simply put, without Margaret, there would be no National Museum of Play today. But how, exactly, did she go from collector to the namesake of The Strong, the world’s only collections-based museum devoted solely to the history and exploration of play?

Alice and John Woodbury with daughter Margaret, 1912.Margaret Woodbury, the only child of wealthy Victorian parents, had an atypical upbringing; she and her parents traveled often, including taking several memorable voyages around the world. Although their home base was in Rochester, the Woodburys spent summers in Maine and winters in California. Years of journeying taught Margaret that the best way to maximize the number of souvenirs she could carry home was by collecting in miniature. After marrying Homer Strong in 1920, Margaret took on the role of dutiful wife and soon after, mother to daughter Barbara. When the Strongs moved from their first Rochester home to a mansion in Pittsford in 1937, Margaret gained the space to showcase cherished objects she had inherited from her parents and explore her own penchant for collecting. By the late 1950s, acquiring items had almost become a full-time activity.

Margaret entertained the notion of turning her personal collections into a museum for nearly two decades. Her mounting accumulations of dolls, dollhouses, Japanese artifacts, sailor’s valentines, and miniatures had roots in her early childhood and travels. Toys, decorative objects, and other themes, like windmills and bookplates, developed based on her own interests. Margaret and Homer had often hosted area social groups at the Allens Creek Road mansion, and Margaret kept out a guestbook to encourage visitors to sign and record any impressions they had of their visits. (One admiring entry read, “A veritable museum of beautiful possessions!”) There were collections everywhere: in the ballroom; the basement; bedrooms; bathtubs; and the floored-over, drained indoor swimming pool. Faced with the need for more space, Margaret gradually added on extra wings to the house to accommodate her collections so that others could see them on display.

Donald R. Harter, Margaret’s attorney, persuaded her to apply to the state for the provisional license for her prospective museum. The licensing procedure was a lengthy one, but the New York State Education Department’s Board of Regents granted a provisional charter for the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination on June 21, 1968. Margaret pronounced, “I have devoted much of my life, particularly in recent years, to the acquisition of such collections and much public interest has been exhibited therein. I believe such a museum as I contemplate will offer a significant contribution to the cultural life of this area and will also attract many visitors from more distant places.”

Strong mansion in Pittsford with added wings for collections, c. 1970. Margaret Woodbury Strong passed away at home on July 17, 1969. In her will, she provided for the transfer of her collections and estate to the museum corporation and entrusted her executors to determine how best to use her collections for a “Museum of Fascination.” (She had chosen that name because, as she put it, collecting “has been, and is, fascinating.”) The museum trustees, tasked with determining the institution’s future, hired expert assessors to evaluate the items at Margaret’s estate. Sixteen professionals spent more than a year inventorying, examining, and appraising the nearly half-million objects in her collections at the Allens Creek Road mansion. The consultants acknowledged that the greatest cluster of items in Margaret’s collections were those that implied play and imagination, but at the time, these professionals did not think that her dolls, toys, and playthings were profound enough to be the basis for an educational museum. Instead, the consultants and trustees concluded that the museum’s mission would be to explore and interpret the cultural development and everyday life in the United States in the post-industrial age. The museum utilized many of the mass-produced, decorative items from Margaret’s existing collections, but it also acquired numerous home furnishings and household equipment to portray the impact of changing technologies on the American home. Following more than a decade of careful cataloging, planning, and building, the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum opened to the public in October 1982, offering educational programs, innovative exhibits, and study collections. In time, however, the museum realized it could not sustain such a broad mission indefinitely.

Provisional charter for the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination, 1968. After an intensive period of research, planning, and expansion, the museum refined its mission in 2003 to one closer to Margaret’s original intent. The treasure trove of dolls, toys, and other materials related to play became the focus of the museum, e  xploring the cultural history of play and how it encourages learning, creativity, and discovery. The Strong National Museum of Play, filled with fascinating collections for all ages and interests, is thriving thanks to Margaret’s foresight and generosity—and 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the museum’s provisional charter. The next time you’re waiting in the admissions line on a rainy day, take a minute to check out the background of our distinguished founder and how her love of collecting has benefited us all!