The contract with the for-profit company that runs the American Museum of Science and Energy will change from quarterly to monthly starting Jan. 1, and a museum expert could be hired on an interim basis to assess the museum, its place in the community, and a logical new operating structure.
The museum is now funded by the U.S. Department of Energy at a cost of about $1.5 to $1.6 million per year, said David Keim, communications director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Revenues from the gift shop, admissions, and programs add up to about $300,000 per year.
But officials have long said that the department should not be operating the museum.
“It’s always been a government-funded operation,” Keim said. But, “DOE is not in the museum business.”
In June, a group of museum directors brought to Oak Ridge from around the country recommended that the museum be run by a community-based nonprofit organization—not DOE and not a for-profit company, Keim said.
“Getting from where we are now to that is a significant transition,” Keim said. “It’s going to mean that the community decide much more actively how it wants to tell the Oak Ridge story.”
Keim is the ORNL employee responsible for managing the AMSE contract. UT-Battelle, which manages the lab for DOE, also manages the museum as part of its federal contract.
Keim said the contract with Enterprise Advisory Services Inc., the Texas-based for-profit company that has run the museum since 1995, has been extended for several years on a quarterly basis. The change to a monthly contract in January is part of a push to move to a new operating structure quickly.
The museum experts being interviewed by ORNL could live here a year and “really dig in,” helping with the transition from EASI to a new model.
“What we’re trying to do is operate AMSE efficiently and move it to a model that is more community-based, that is more efficient than the current model,” Keim said.
Among the questions to be answered are who would serve on the nonprofit’s board and how money would be raised. DOE is not “pulling the plug” on the museum, but officials have said there must be a better way to operate it, Keim said.
The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge has appointed an ad hoc committee to see how it could work with AMSE. Three board members from the Children’s Museum attended an AMSE Foundation board meeting on Tuesday, and Keim asked them to consider whether the Children’s Museum could play the role, or part of the role, now played by EASI. The Children’s Museum is an existing Oak Ridge-based nonprofit organization that has museum experience, Keim said.
He emphasized that officials are not trying to merge the two museums.
“There have been a lot of ideas for AMSE over the years,” Keim said. “Our hope is that by making a change in the operating model that a lot of great ideas will come forth.”
The city has also been involved in the discussions on the museum, which is on South Tulane Avenue, next door to the Oak Ridge Municipal Building. City Manager Mark Watson said Amy Fitzgerald, the city’s government and information services director, is involved with the AMSE Foundation board.
The city is discussing the best path forward, how to spur community dialogue, who should be engaged, and how to deal with costs, Watson said.
He has put together an ad hoc group that includes Fitzgerald and Ray Smith, Y-12 National Security Complex historian. Smith also played a role in the June meeting of museum directors.
Watson said attendance at the museum has dropped, and a facility is needed that is big enough to generate interest from around the region. A proposal being considered in Congress would designate Oak Ridge as part of a Manhattan Project National Park, and city officials have discussed having a national parks visitor center at the Oak Ridge Public Library and using a greenway corridor that would tie into AMSE and the Secret City Commemorative Walk at Alvin K. Bissell Park, among other things, Watson said.
Nicknamed the “Secret City,” Oak Ridge was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II. That was a federal program that raced to build the world’s first atomic weapons. Exhibits at AMSE and the Children’s Museum pay tribute to that heritage.
For now, the city is waiting to see what happens next, Watson said.
Meanwhile, the transition discussions continue at ORNL, where other officials are also involved, including Jeff Smith, the lab’s deputy director for operations.
“We’re focused on making AMSE better, having it operate more efficiently, and providing an operating model that will make it the kind of museum that a city of Oak Ridge’s historical significance and current importance deserves,” Keim said.