Margaret Woodbury Strong, a prolific collector of everyday objects, especially dolls and toys, founded The Strong in 1968 under the name “Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination.” Before she died in 1969, she bequeathed her considerable estate to help support the museum, and 13 years later it opened in a new 156,000-square-foot building on 13.5 acres in downtown Rochester.
Nearly all the things Mrs. Strong collected were mass-produced, so initially the museum used them to examine ways in which industrialization changed everyday life. Within a few years, this focus evolved into an examination of the consequences of progress, the rise of the middle class, and expressions of identity.
In the mid 1990s, after in-depth market research and strategic analysis, the museum significantly increased programming for families. This led to major growth in attendance, and in 1997, the museum added a new glass atrium entrance housing an operating 1918 carousel and an authentic 1950s diner.
In 2002, The Strong acquired the National Toy Hall of Fame from A. C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon. The next year, following additional market studies, extensive scholarly and institutional research, and rigorous programmatic and financial planning, the museum determined to concentrate fully on its core collections of toys, dolls, and other artifacts of play and refined its mission accordingly.
Between 2004 and 2006, the museum nearly doubled its physical footprint to 285,000 square feet, making it one of nation’s largest history museums. The museum’s expanded size, coupled with its high levels of interactivity, also distinguished it as second largest among institutions self-designated or otherwise known as children’s museums. The additions included one large and two smaller wings; two new museum shops; a food court with three restaurants; a new state-of-the-art collections storage facility; and a number of dynamic new exhibits, among them Reading Adventureland, Field of Play, and Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden. During this same period, in consequence of its refined mission and expanded scope, the museum changed its name to Strong National Museum of Play.
In the late 2000s, as interpretive activities and collections continued to grow and evolve, Strong National Museum of Play introduced several nationally significant initiatives that further positioned the institution as a leader in the field of play. In 2008, the museum began publishing the American Journal of Play, a scholarly publication with a global audience. In 2009, the museum launched the International Center for the History of Electronic Games and began building what has become the most comprehensive public collection of video games, other electronic games, and related materials anywhere, currently numbering more than 55,000 items. Also in 2009, the museum renamed its library and archives the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, after the nation’s most celebrated play scholar, whose personal library and papers are housed there.
In 2010 the museum rebranded as The Strong, encompassing 100,000 square feet of exhibitions; a wide array of public, school, and other programs and activities; and the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, and the American Journal of Play.
During 2015, the museum established the World Video Game Hall of Fame to recognize individual electronic games of all types—arcade, console, computer, handheld, and mobile—that have enjoyed popularity over a sustained period and have exerted influence on the video game industry or on popular culture and society in general. Also during 2015, the museum elevated its position as a “must-see” national destination with the opening of the state-of-the-art Toy Halls of Fame exhibit, which houses both The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame and the Toy Industry Association’s Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
In 2016, The Strong announced a partnership with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) and opened an exhibit honoring the game-changing individuals and award-winning video games recognized for achievement by AIAS. Also in 2016, G. Rollie Adams, PhD, retired as president and CEO of the museum after nearly 30 years of dedicated service that saw sustained and exponential growth of the museum’s programs, attendance, and physical footprint. In honor of his accomplishments, The Strong’s Board of Trustees named Adams president and CEO emeritus, and the museum established the G. Rollie Adams Research Fellowship program to advance play research.
On January 1, 2017, Steve Dubnik, entrepreneur and 16-year member of The Strong’s board of trustees, succeeded Adams as president and CEO. Also in January 2017, the museum published Play for Life: Play Theory and Play as Emotional Survival, an edited compilation that contains, among other features, the final book-length manuscript of Brian Sutton-Smith, preeminent play scholar of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.