At first blush, it would be easy to view the partnership between the newly minted Hands-On! Discovery Center and the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum as a marriage of convenience.
Hands-On! was looking to move out of downtown Johnson City, and the fossil site had the space to facilitate Hands-On! as it made its long-planned transformation from a children’s museum to an all-ages science center. But after two wildly successful months, it’s hard to argue the partnership is anything short of a match made in heaven.
Andy Marquart, executive director of the Hands-On! Discovery Center, said the work being done by the paleontologists who spend each day recovering fossils just steps beyond the building creates an aura of discovery and learning he hopes will rub off on those who visit Hands-On!’s new home.
“We wanted to kind of match that philosophical approach of what’s happening from the hard science standpoint to the more whimsical, playful side of science,” Marquart said. “The rate of discovery that the paleontologists have here as far as what they’re pulling out of the ground and learning and seeing new things every day, that matches our intended impact on the visitor. We have visitors that are discovering new things every day.”
That spark of discovery has proven to be very popular among people in our region and beyond. During the months of June and July – the first two months Hands-On! was open – over 25,000 visitors representing 41 states have made their way through the facility.
“To give you some context, that’s the total amount that the Gray Fossil Site and Museum would see in a year, and that was equivalent to the last six months (Hands-On! was open) downtown,” Marquart said.Another positive is the fact that many visitors were compelled to come back again and again. During those two months, Hands-On! sold 400 memberships, which was encouraging to Marquart seeing as Hands-On! had been selling an average of 650 memberships per year.
Visitors have been drawn to Hands-On! by a variety of new open-ended activities that incorporate science, engineering, math and art. The addition of a two-story Paleo Tower in the lobby – which allows people of all ages to climb up a dinosaur-themed structure – and the replica of a short-faced bear skeleton pulled from the fossil site strengthen the ties between Hands-On! and the fossil site.
Looking ahead, Marquart said Hands-On! wants to continue blending the two entities together by renovating that natural history hall.
“That hasn’t changed too much since it opened over 10 years ago,” Marquart said. “We have some funds set aside to do that, and we’re going to work very closely with the paleontologists to make sure their intended vision of how the site is interpreted is in that space.”
Other short-term plans include exploring the addition of an outdoor component to the Discovery Center and bringing a new attraction online in the art studio that will allow kids to color fish and underwater creatures before scanning them into an underwater environment on a screen. Creating displays on the second floor that would allow visitors to observe paleontologists at work in the prep lab and view actual fossils is also on the to-do list.
In the long run, the plan is for Hands-On! to construct a separate building on the property to further expand the discovery center’s mission. But for now, Marquart is pleased that Hands-On! has been able to realize a goal that was set back in 1992.
“Our agenda has always been to fulfill our mission – we truly wanted to become hands-on,” he said. “To finally realize that is really great. People hear Hands-On, and I think there is a certain brand recognition that goes along with that.”