Friday, September 12, 2008

Hmm...What Do We Value?

While in Rochester, I attended a reception at the Strong National Museum of Play. I hadn't visited the museum in a very long time and I was curious to see the changes. I came away a little perturbed at what I saw in, what admittedly, was a fairly quick viewing, and one done without any kids there.

What bothered me? It really made me think about values. From what I can see, the Strong Museum values plastic and brand names. It felt like a giant temple to consumerism. When you looked at cases, you couldn't tell if they were exhibition or gift shop cases...they were all filled with brand name merchandise. I wanted some acknowledgement that, in American life, there are many, many, people who make do without giant piles of plastic toys to entertain their children. The corrugated cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong, but that sort of inventiveness and sense of unstructured play did not seem much on display here. I also wanted a greater recognition that there's an incredibly diverse America whose play traditions could be represented.

And that there some way to do this differently, so we could teach kids a bit about recycling, or reusing, or saving...not just purchasing?

I'd love to hear from others about what they--and their kids--think of the Strong. I did hear from several people that their kids, when younger, loved it.

The Strong, to their credit, also values reading--books are everywhere, and cleanliness...the place is spotless. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, all these different values, the Strong Museum has done what few museums actually pull off. They said they were going to change the mission, change the way the museum does business, and change the audience--and that people would come. That's a familiar song, but this museum actually made it happen...but did they sell out to do so?

Above: No images from the Strong Museum, just images from the Norris family archive, of play, with little or no plastic or brand names.


Caren said...

I visited the Strong on Thursday afternoon with a colleague. I spent almost 3 hours. Although the immediate entrance area (just before the exhibition about Play) is a window of toys, I did not get the impression that the Strong was all about branding and plastic. Instead they talked about play with an eye on nostalgia, authentic experiences (familiarity), and imagination.

Nostalgia: I found the window of toys to be nostalgic -- and they are plastic and "commercial" because they showed toys from the last 30 years and this is what toys have been since the 70s. These windows were at the height of an adult -- not a child. They were there to promote familiarity and nostalgia in the adult...assuming the adult was born in the 1970s. In effect, these are the products of my childhood nostalgia (I was born in 1975) but perhaps they are not the products of your childhood nostalgia -- If you are one of the children in the photos I would assume you are in your 50s and grew up in times when there was less plastic and less opportunities to brand (I would suggest however that the girls in the photos probably had barbies and the boys likely had hot wheels waiting for them inside...and the magazines in the last photo would have been full of branding and advertising and plastic). Because the displays at the Strong are not the products of your childhood nostalgia -- but rather products confirming an anti-consumerism adulthood -- you are more likely see them negatively as plastic and branding. I saw them positively as whimsical and welcoming.

Authenticity: And there was the Wegmans store. There was something initially off-putting about the Wegmans store -- until I saw several children and parents using the store. The store is as authentic an experience for the child as possible. Children want to copy their parents -- and in the Wegmans store they do so. They pick up real products found in a real supermarket. I would argue that by using real food stuffs (Barilla spaghetti for example or Wegmans peanut butter) parents and children can have a conversation about healthy food and then have that exact same conversation at home with the same products. The actual spaghetti box or peanut butter container is more authentic than a cardboard box that says "spaghetti."

Imagination: Lastly, I thought the Strong did a suburb job with engaging children's imagination. Through out the first floor were low tables with arts and crafts materials (I counted at least three opportunities to do crafts). The exhibit about reading looked at 5 genres of literature, including fairy tales, mysteries, and others. At no point did I see branding (like a Disney Castle). They also had a great train that cost .75 cents to ride -- it was shaped and colored like a 1930's train -- it was not Thomas the Tank Engine. Children could let their imaginations go wherever they wanted and at no point did branded products interfere with that.

In the end I believe the Strong did a fantastic job of welcoming and engaging the children who visit and the adults who come with them.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful set of comments. As I mentioned, I did see it without children there, and I suspect that made a large difference. Your comments were a great reminder of the importance of individual meaning-making in museums...we all bring our different perspectives and I appreciated you sharing yours.