What a thrill! Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The Museum, an arm of The Strong institute, is dedicated to everything play—toys, games, puzzles, sport, role-play, etc. Among it’s current exhibits are one celebrating comic book heroes, one providing kids a fully-stocked scale grocery store to play shopping, and one that brings to life children’s literature with a kid-sized fairy tale forest.
The real strength of the Museum, though, is how it integrates play, preservation, and education. Within each of the exhibits, displays of artifacts are side-by-side with related fun activities. This really gives the visitor a good sense of historical trends in play. It also helps make the museum as interesting to adults as it is to children.
In fact, despite all the interactive exhibits and fun activities, one shouldn’t be misled into thinking that the National Museum of Play is just a children’s museum or playhouse. The Strong and Museum are also dedicated to the serious study of play. The Museum houses one of the largest collections of play objects (toys, games, and other stuff) anywhere (much of which is available for perusal online), maintains a large library of professional publications, manages several unique archives, and offers fellowships for researchers.
My visit to this fantastic institution was facilitated by Nicolas Ricketts, Curator; Susan Trien, Senior Director of Public Relations; and Julia Rossi, Archivist. The three gave me a guided tour of the game-related exhibits, as well as the opportunity to examine the Sid Sackson and Philip Orbanes archives.
Boardwalk Arcade is a celebration of summer, carnivals, and beach-side resorts. Artifacts on display include vintage advertising posters and models of amusement park rides. For activities there is Skee Ball, Whack-a-Mole, and a variety of pinball machines. Open now through September 8th, Boardwalk Arcade would be a particularly great activity for a rainy summer day.
National Toy Hall of Fame
Inductees to the National Toy Hall of Fame include such classic playthings as marbles, Barbie dolls, Mr. Potato Head, Scrabble, Dominoes, and Star Wars action figures. All are on display in a special section of the museum upstairs. The 2013 inductees will be announced on November 7th.
Starting in 2015, the National Toy Hall of Fame will be combined with the Toy Industry Association’s Hall of Fame, which focuses on people in the toy industry. Past inductees to the latter include Walt Disney, George Lucas, F.A.O. Schwarz, and the Hassenfeld brothers (founders of Hasbro). A $4 million project will transform the museum’s existing Hall of Fame space with a 100 foot long, 20 foot high LED theatrical screen and interactive play environments.
Monopoly: An American Icon
Monopoly gets its own exhibit at the Museum of Play. Highlighted at the center of Monopoly: An American Icon is Charles Darrow’s original handmade board—round, according to legend, to fit his dining room table. Surrounding that board are displays showing the historical evolution of Monopoly from the 1906 Landlord’s Game. There are early folk-art versions of Monopoly, Charles Darrow’s tie-box Monopoly (his first commercial product, sold in Philadelphia department stores), modern branded games, and Hasbro’s recent releases.
Game Time is an exhibit all about our favorite subject: GAMES! Between the giant-sized, free-to-play-with versions of Perplexus, Battleship, Connect Four, and Rush Hour are two main display sections—one exploring games by genre and one showing the history of games in a timeline. The genre displays cover logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, word games, matching games, strategy games, roleplaying games, race games, party games, card games, dexterity games, and wealth games—each with both modern and antique examples, as well as information on their historical context. There’s so much to learn here about what makes a game, what value games add to play, and how different games tie in to different human needs and social relationships.
But if that’s sounds too serious for you, it’s also a lot of fun just to see older games compared side-by-side to modern ones of similar type.
The timeline section starts in the 1800s and ends at the present—so it’s more of a look at the development of modern games than a study of their ancient origins. Still, there’s a lot to learn about trends in game design and how games have been viewed in modern culture. One of the things that’s apparent, for example, is that the tension between games being seen as primarily educational tools or entertainment is cyclical.
Not everything at the Museum is on display. Among the archives and collections of the Museum are personal papers and prototypes of game designer, Sid Sackson, and Monopoly expert and former Parker Brothers executive, Philip Orbanes. Getting to examine them in person was the highlight of my visit. Imagine holding in your hands the manuscript to the rules for Acquire!
Did you know that when Sid Sackson received a new game, he’d throw away the box to save on storage space?
Like many game designers I know, Sackson kept a detailed notebook of all his game ideas. But he also used the same diaries to take notes for meetings and record business details. At the end of the year, he’d index them by game and person.
One item in the Philip Orbanes collection was a personal scrapbook of George S. Parker, a founder of Parker Brothers. In it was correspondence of Parker with his company’s British representatives following a trip he’d made to assess the market there just after World War I.