This week for my Collections Management class, I had to write a case study on the Strong National Museum of Play’s mission shift. I was particularly excited about this topic for two reasons. The first is that the Strong is located in my hometown, Rochester, NY. I vividly remember loving the museum as a child and even have home videos of me in the museum. The second reason is that I find the idea of changing a mission intriguing. So, I’ve decided to explore the topic with a bit more flexibility here.
The Strong Museum opened in 1982 with a collection of approximately 500,000 objects. The collection was created by Margaret Woodbury Strong, the largest individual donor to the Eastman Kodak Company. She loved collecting a range of objects including dolls, toys, furniture, clothing, knickknacks, and paintings. Upon her death, she left her collection to start a museum. In 1973, the director of the museum asked professionals to assess the collection to determine how it should be interpreted. The conclusion was that the collection was mostly comprised of products manufactured in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so the museum would interpret products made in America and their process of production from 1820 to 1940.
The museum began as a history museum, with exhibitions that outlined middle class America and industrial progress throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century using objects manufactured during this time. The Strong’s opening drew a large crowd of curious visitors, but as the curiosity wore off, the Strong’s attendance fell.
Descriptions of the museum at this time are very different from my memories of the museum as a child (late 1990s-early 2000). My fondest memories include sitting in Big Bird’s nest in the exhibit “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” and being really excited to get to do my own pretend grocery shopping in the incredibly detailed miniature Wegmans in the exhibit “Wegmans Super Kids Market.”
The exhibits that I remember are extremely interactive for children. Descriptions of early exhibits seem to be more traditional exhibits. By 1989, the staff of the Strong realized the difficulty that the museum was having reaching the audience, so they eliminated the 1940 end date that the professionals in 1973 had instituted. This allowed the museum to acquire and accession objects manufactured after 1940 and create a contemporary culture collection.
In the early 2000s, the museum took steps to change its mission and focus on play. The collection is home to the nation’s largest collections of both dolls and toys and games, making play a very relevant theme. After establishing a Board-Staff Play Study Team to determine if focusing on play would improve or hinder the museum and the board decided to adopt this new play-driven mission. The Strong became the Strong National Museum of Play in 2006. I was 11 years old when this happened and I remember the announcement of the transition and the rebranding that came along with it. I was old enough to understand that this was a positive transition, but young enough to be not completely understand what this meant for my favorite museum. I was worried that my favorite exhibits would be replaced. Luckily, this was exactly the opposite of what actually happened. The exhibits I remember as a child are still open in 2016 and even more exhibits of a similar interactive nature have been installed.
The internal analysis and redefinition of the mission of the Strong have led me to a few questions about how museums should go about such a massive change. What factors should lead to a change such as this one? In the case of the Strong, it was largely caused by a lack of engagement from the audience and a reanalysis of the collection. But how does a museum know that it is the mission that should be fixed instead of another solution? I think a shift in mission can be really helpful for museum to reevaluate its collection, especially if the museum starts to find that there are large portions of the collection that don’t exactly fit the current mission.