The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge has blossomed under the leadership of Executive Director Mary Ann Damos, with added exhibits inside and improved grounds outside. One literal example is the once-overgrown back yard that’s now a blooming and attractive learning garden inviting children to grow, harvest, and cook the garden’s bounty.
Damos is retiring at the end of this year after 10 years as director and nearly 20 years with the museum. The Kids Go Green! Environmental Learning Center and Garden is one of her favorite areas of the museum and among the improvements she is most proud of.
“The garden transformed our building,” Damos said. “Plus, it teaches the children about the environment, to have concern for the earth, which is really important. The garden has become a part of events and activities throughout the museum. In the summer, for example, all the camps use the garden, whether for arts or sciences.”
Damos is spending her last weeks at the museum finishing some grant requests. The opportunity to write grants and lead education program first attracted her to the museum in 1996. She responded to a small ad in The Oak Ridger and became the museum’s director of education, taking outreach programs to rural schools in surrounding counties, one of her favorite jobs. She soon added grant writing to her job description when then-director Selma Shapiro learned she had done that for eight years in a previous job.
As Shapiro gave her more responsibilities at the museum, she became deputy director, along with Carroll Welch. Then Damos was named executive director when Shapiro, who had guided the museum through its first 32 years, from a small group of exhibits to a regional center of learning and play, retired.
“Mary Ann has taken the Children’s Museum to the next level,” said Tom Beehan, president of the museum’s board. “She has kept the museum growing as she’s added exhibits, and she has made it a regular destination for children and families throughout the East Tennessee region.”
Museum board member Ronnie Bogard, Shapiro’s daughter, recalled that there was little angst when Shapiro retired and Damos became director.
“We all knew you, knew your talents, and knew that you were capable of continuing forward the vision my mother had for the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. That vision was about caring for the children and families of this community through educational and cultural experiences. It was about creating a place where children learn in a hands-on way that is fun and memorable,” Bogard said at the retirement reception for Damos on Monday at the museum.
“As we look back over the past 10 years under your leadership, it is obvious that you have been successful in furthering the vision. The museum has grown, and the museum continues to grow,” she added. “You have done it with your own style, your own emphasis, and your own passion.”
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch presented a resolution declaring December 21 as Mary Ann Damos Appreciation Day and thanking her for her leadership as director and service to the community.
Damos, an artist who has created drawings, paintings, and soft-sculpture dolls, brought color to the neutral interior of the Children’s Museum, starting with painting the doors different colors and then adding color to walls and exhibits. She also introduced the first International Festival, a much-loved annual event.
The major grants she applied for and received have introduced new exhibits and upgraded existing ones, with support from foundations and from individual donors. An Institute for Museum and Library Services grant allowed the museum to transform an asphalt jungle behind the museum for the learning garden’s trees, vegetables, fruits, and wildflowers, as well as hire a garden educator.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts let the museum take outreach programs in music and visual arts to rural schools. The Appalachian Exhibit was upgraded to allow children and families to explore the music, crafts and daily lives of a family in Appalachia in the 1880s, also through a grant from IMLS and local matching funds. And grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and United Way of Anderson County continue to support the museum.
The newest grant supports the Kids in Action! Healthy Living Exhibit now being developed, one that will tie into activities in the museum’s garden. The exhibit will focus on healthy nutrition, healthy activity, STEM education and community wellness.
Damos suggested the kid-sized tugboat now in the TVA Waterworks Exhibit, and volunteer Frank Peishel built the tugboat to scale. Damos said that volunteer Margaret Allard has had a large role in developing and improving exhibits during Damos’ time there. The museum staff includes five full-time employees, five part-time, and more than 100 volunteers, including the teens and adults who volunteer during Imagination Station Summer Camps.
Her husband, the Reverend Steve Damos, retired as minister of Grace Lutheran Church earlier this year, and her retirement fits into their plans to retire at about the same time.
Damos has set up a studio in her home where she plans to return to painting and drawing and possibly some crafts. She also enjoys writing and said she may try her hand at poetry. And if she has time, she may learn to play the tenor ukulele.
“I used to play the guitar very badly, and the piano, very badly. So I thought I could play ukulele very badly, too,” she laughed.
If her accomplishments at the Children’s Museum are any indication, she will be playing ukulele very well before long.
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