Rochester, N.Y., museum takes playtime very seriously

11/11/2012 12:00 AM

11/09/2012 3:42 PM

The third in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The American Alliance of Museums estimates that there are about 17,500 museums in the United States.

I believe this to be a gross undercount. During a month or so of traveling around America, we have personally seen at least that many, and we've only covered 16 states so far.

I do agree, however, with the AAM's assertion that America's museums "are wonderfully diverse." My wife, Ceil, and I have seen grand museums so vast and varied in their holdings that it would take hours to give all their exhibits even a cursory glance. We have seen museums so small and humble that we felt compelled to look at things two or three times, so as not to exit too quickly and embarrass the curator. And we have seen "museums" where everything is for sale, and have about as much to do with real museums as Congress does with solving problems.

Among our discoveries:

The Range Riders Museum, in Miles City, Mont., begun in 1939 by five local cowboys and built into a six-building complex with contributions from ranchers who got to put their brands on the walls for ponying up $25 or more.

The Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, N.D., located in an indoor shopping mall and devoted to the hometown baseball hero who has yet to reach the game's official museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Northfield (Minn.) Historical Society Museum, smack dab in the very bank that the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang robbed in 1876, with everything just as it was that fateful afternoon.

But the museum that has been the most fun is the one that is devoted to, well, fun. It's the National Museum of Play, run by a nonprofit outfit called The Strong, and ensconced in a nearly 300,000-square-foot building in the heart of this very livable city of about 210,000 in western New York.

The complex claims to be the only collections-based museum in the world devoted to the study and history of play, and on a rainy Saturday afternoon, it's jammed with children doing some serious studying.

Over here is a 5-year-old girl, transfixed by a closed-circuit television system in the museum's detailed reproduction of "Sesame Street," which lets her appear on a TV screen with Elmo and Count Von Count.

Over there, a slightly older girl is pushing a kid-sized shopping cart around a supermarket, diligently pulling play goods off well-stocked shelves and then proceeding to the checkout counter where other kids are taking their roles as clerks pretty seriously.

In line at one of the fast-food counters in the food court, three students from MIT, who are attending a conference at the museum, are engaged in an intense discussion about video game design, bandying about terms like "challenge/reward" and "action/outcome ratios."

Upstairs, meanwhile, an aging boomer is reliving his youth on some of the two dozen vintage video games, such as Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids and Star Wars. I wasn't any good at them 40 years ago, either.

Of course time and age are relative in a place devoted to having fun. I was reminded of this while perusing the thousands of artifacts in the museum's National Toy Hall of Fame, when a girl who looked to be about 11 or 12 pointed excitedly at something in the case in front of us and exclaimed to her companion, "Oh my God! Do you remember those?"

None of us is paying attention to the fact that through play we are learning to balance, analyze, build strength, create, cooperate and compete, and take risks to earn rewards.

All of that is stuff people at the Strong outfit study, which is why they lure kids in with things like a 1918 carousel, a pirate ship, a mystery mansion, a wizard's workshop and hundreds of books crammed into every corner of the museum.

"It is a happy talent to know how to play," Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, and he was right. Every politician in America should be required to spend time at this museum.

Provided, of course, that they are watched closely and the toys are counted before they leave.


NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PLAY

Where: One Manhattan Square, Rochester N.Y.

When: Hours vary, so check out the website at www.museumofplay.org.

How much: $13 general, $12 for seniors and $11 for kids 2-15. It sounds a bit steep, but it's worth it.

Why: It's fun.

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