By Jeff Keeling
With a few crumbs of information on which to nibble, some of our local media have been generating much heat and very little light about the Hands On! Regional Museum’s hoped-for future expansion. Months after the museum leadership’s initial study of a strategic expansion plan, the main point of inquiry, and consternation, seems to revolve around whether the regional museum will leave downtown Johnson City.
I’ll reveal my hand early here: If the board of the 28-year-old regional museum determines it has a realistic opportunity to provide a science museum experience beyond anything else it could manage by partnering with East Tennessee State University at the Gray Fossil Site, it should run, not walk, toward that goal.
I say this as a bona fide downtown Johnson City advocate, a Hands On! financial supporter, and someone who would love to continue being able to walk or cycle to a downtown Hands On! with my grandchildren, the ebullient Owen and sprite-like Emmarie, in tow. But facts, not emotion or sentiment, should govern multimillion dollar decisions like the one this regional museum is preparing to make about its future. And while facts and knowledge about a possible museum partnership are abundant and growing as Hands On! and ETSU folks study the multiple variables at play, those facts are, quite appropriately, remaining behind closed doors at this juncture.
On the outside, beyond rather slapdash references to what an “economic engine” Hands On is for downtown, and how tremendously the city has supported the regional museum over its quarter-century of existence, there has been a paucity of facts surrounding the possibility of a partnership between Hands On! and the Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site.
When the news “broke” that Hands On! may leave downtown, the Johnson City Press dutifully editorialized that the museum somehow owed it to Johnson City to stay downtown, citing the support the city has provided through the years.
The discussion of and concept planning for a new museum building below the Johnson City Public Library began nearly a decade ago. Perhaps the discussions have lasted this long because it isn’t easy to raise $15 million or more.
When I first heard of the Fossil Site/Hands On! idea, my initial reaction was, “why would they move from downtown?” Then I decided to give Hands On’s leadership the benefit of the doubt, assuming that facts would win out to the betterment of our region as a whole. I perused a year-old consultants’ study prepared for Hands On! as the museum looked to lay the groundwork for a capital campaign and expansion plan, and gleaned a little bit about what makes science museums work.
From my limited knowledge base, and in no particular order, here are a few, but by no means all, of the reasons why a Hands On/Fossil site combination could be a brass ring worthy of grabbing. (A new museum downtown would still make me happy, too, were it the best option.)
Dirty fingernails. Most communities with regional science museums don’t have the luxury of a world-renowned fossil dig site, complete with existing museum, with which to partner. This could be a differentiator that helps the museum become far more impactful and effective than it could be in any other Tri-Cities location.
Striking a blow for regionalism. Far too often in this metro, we trade our regional birthright for a mess of parochial pottage, as it were. Johnson City leaders should embrace the move and even take the first steps toward supporting it financially – if it’s the best option.
Museum people running the fossil museum. Andy Marquart and company at Hands On! know how to market museums and get people there. ETSU’s folks do a great job at the fossil site, but private sector-style marketing of their incredible product is not their forte nor is it their first priority. If the whole works, museum-wise, were run by the Hands On! folks, more people would be learning about those fossils.
Bang for the buck. I’ve buried probably the most important reason like a tapir claw in the Miocene mud. All other things being equal, and they’re probably not, if available space in Gray can be repurposed and Hands On! can reach its goals while saving $4, $6, $8 million, the players would be doing the community a disservice by not working through the hurdles and making this happen. More money could follow, allowing for an even better museum site.
Full STEAM ahead. Imagine the science and arts possibilities for our K-12 students. Picture nearby Ridgeview Elementary and Daniel Boone High schools as magnets for science-related curricula.
I feel relatively confident that, were Hands On! to relocate to Gray in a couple or three years, the move would be far from a death blow to downtown Johnson City’s revitalization efforts. I’m ready to make the drive should the stars align.