By Jeff Keeling
A collaboration with East Tennessee State University now official, Hands On! Regional Museum will operate exhibits at the Gray Fossil site’s natural history museum starting Friday. The children’s museum will move its own operations to Gray over the next couple of years before expanding there, possibly by 2020.
Hands On’s downtown Johnson City location at 315 East Main St., with 12,000 square feet of exhibit space, will remain open and operational for at least another year, while the expanded museum, if completed, would have about 30,000 square feet of space.
The collaboration between ETSU – which has run the fossil site since 2001 and the museum since it opened in 2007 – received state and federal approval last week. Hands On! Director Andy Marquart and ETSU representatives first began discussing a potential collaboration around a year ago. News & Neighbor reported in December that the parties were trying to work through details and reach an agreement both said would be mutually beneficial.
“Truly, it was an altruistic conversation to begin with,” Marquart said. “It was people sitting down and saying, ‘how do we maximize an educational resource that’s existing right now in East Tennessee?’ That conversation changed over time, and this is the end result.
“It’s a very unique proposition. There’s really not a lot of situations like this out there. I’m privileged to be part of it here, and I think the community should be really proud of what they have and what’s going to happen.”
For ETSU, the change will bring a professional, “experience-driven” museum staff to an academically-oriented site and museum, Marquart said. Hands On! has hired new staff to work at the natural history museum. Dr. Blaine Schubert, executive director of the Don Sundquist Center of excellence in Paleontology (the overall fossil and museum site), said the change will allow him and the other scientists there to focus on what they do best, while leaving museum-related programming to Marquart and company.
“The Gray Fossil Site and research center will now have the ability to expand its focus on excavations, research, collections care and university-related programming,” Schubert said.
He said ETSU will work closely with Hands On! to develop exhibits and conduct public outreach on the paleontology/archeology side. “We are absolutely thrilled with this partnership and look forward to developing a truly unique experience at the Fossil Site,” he said.
ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said the change is not resulting in the loss of any jobs on the university’s side.
For Hands On!, the eventual move will allow a long-discussed expansion campaign to be achieved for roughly half the money than if a new museum were built from scratch – and with a ready-made, constantly evolving additional exhibit space thrown in for good measure.
“Our staff is extremely experience-driven, down to the last detail,” Marquart said, adding that Hands On! employees have been planning the transition for several months in hopes it would receive Tennessee Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration approval. The fossil site, which dates from 7 to 4.5 million years ago and continues to yield new, rare discoveries, was discovered in 2000 during a road project, and its infrastructure was partially funded by the state and federal governments.
“We will have an immediate impact on how they do some programming,” Marquart said. “People might notice different lab programs, or different things happening around the site from an interpretive perspective.
“We care deeply about the accuracy of the information we’re presenting, so to have a working Miocene dig site on your campus, access to world class scientists, and then take our background in interpreting the world around us – that combination will be the most striking difference right away.”
Eventually, Hands On!’s Johnson City exhibits will be in Gray, creating a “two-fer” for museum goers, with a growing regional science museum and a natural history museum literally joined at the hip. Hands On! is currently refurbishing several of its modular exhibits, and Marquart said as that work is finished, those will go into parts of the 12,000 square feet of extra space available at Gray.
What about downtown Johnson City?
Hands On’s board has desired a new, larger, more museum-appropriate facility for more than a decade now, Marquart said. A consultants’ study estimated a $15 million cost for the first phase of a new museum, including 15,000 square feet of exhibit space. An additional buildout to bring the total exhibit space to 30,000 square feet would add several million more to the eventual tab.
That daunting challenge was under discussion, including with potential donors, when the Fossil Site talks bubbled up, Marquart said. The downtown rebuild hadn’t gained a lot of traction, but even in preliminary discussions, this effort has, Marquart said.
He’s confident in the museum leadership’s ability to raise $6.5 to $9 million – $1.5 to $2 million first, to refurbish exhibits, bring on a few new ones and bring about what Marquart called “long-term solvency” for the museum. A second phase would seek $5-7 million to add another 10,000 to 14,000 square feet of exhibit space. That would allow for what Marquart called the “reintroduction” of a few old Hands On! favorites that may not fit in the current 12,000 feet in Gray once a few new exhibits are added, and plenty more as the museum grows.
One reason he’s confident is the degree to which donors’ money will go toward exhibits, and not just bricks and mortar. “Donors want to give to the experience at museums,” Marquart said. “There will be infrastructure, but compared to other projects I’ve been involved with, the majority of the donors’ dollars are going towards educational experiences. That makes it easier.”
Hands On! will begin the capital campaign soon. As funding comes in, Marquart said, “we’ll almost immediately begin constructing and implementing new exhibit spaces (in Gray). It will be over the course of months strategizing and figuring out what kind of content we can fund raise for first.” He said the goal is to complete fundraising, including for the additional building, by 2020.
The cost savings, co-located fossil museum and ability for donors to see the benefits of their giving directly in exhibits aren’t the only cards in the museum’s hand. Gray is more of a “regional” site in some ways than Johnson City, as it isn’t one of the three primary Tri-Cities and is more centrally located to Bristol and Kingsport. The location, about two miles off of Exit 13 of Interstate 26, is also within a 15-minute drive of 330,000 people – 18 percent higher than the 280,000 within 15 minutes of the Johnson City site.
Ultimately, though, conversations with Marquart about the collaboration consistently return to the themes of experience and learning. He said they’ll be enhanced by the partnership in ways that should encourage educators, parents and even companies concerned about the next generation workforce.
“Paleontology is a big focus of ours out there. To us, all science is related. If somebody wants to come in and see an exhibit about Nikola Tesla, but it draws them to something they see on the fossil site, that’s the beautiful part about this educational experience. You can diversify the learning opportunities for people as they’re on site.
“A big part of our plan is to really heighten the paleontology experience out there. There have been so many discoveries that have happened at the site since that museum opened – we have to work to develop a good reflection of what they’re discovering currently.”