The current location of the American Museum of Science and Energy on South Tulane Avenue could close at the end of July, and the museum could re-open at its new home at Main Street Oak Ridge in the early fall, officials said.
In the meantime, the museum might not be open a month or two as exhibits are moved, said Ken Tarcza, manager of the Oak Ridge Office for the U.S. Department of Energy. But DOE bus tours will continue, Tarcza said at a meeting to give an update about the AMSE project at Oak Ridge High School on June 14. Some specifics of the transition haven’t been worked out yet.
Tarcza said the new 18,000-square-foot museum will feature state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. It will be in renovated space on the north side of Main Street Oak Ridge near JCPenney. Besides exhibits and activities, the new museum will also have a lecture hall and two classrooms.
There will be four major categories featured in the museum, Tarcza said: energy leadership, “big science,” national security, and environmental restoration. Many of the exhibits at the current AMSE need to be refreshed, and the majority of the exhibits at the new location will have a brand-new design, Tarcza said.
“The new AMSE includes highly interactive, state-of-the-art displays, videos, and artifacts that will tell the story of the groundbreaking science, national security, engineering, and environmental restoration advances that began decades ago in Oak Ridge, continue today, and will well into the future,” Tarcza said during the June update. “The new AMSE will also serve as the hub, or the central point of activities, of a ‘hub and spoke’ heritage and science tourism concept that includes other important sites in the community.”
Oak Ridge Today has previously reported that the new AMSE could have about 7,200 square feet of exhibit space, in addition to the two 800-square-foot classrooms and the lecture hall. Gerard Hilferty and Associates, a consultant that’s also been working on the K-25 History Center, is responsible for designing and fabricating the exhibits.
The museum will also feature some historical content, including a full-size model of the Little Boy bomb that used uranium that was enriched in Oak Ridge and was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. That bomb model has been sent to Ohio for refurbishment, Tarcza said.
Not all exhibits at the current AMSE will be transferred, Tarcza said. He said some exhibits are outdated, some have been on loan, and some, like the Little Boy model, will be refurbished.
Some favorites, such as the Van de Graaff generator, will be kept, Tarcza said.
“One of the most important aspects of the new AMSE is that it will showcase important scientific and engineering feats accomplished in Oak Ridge,” Tarcza said. “It will continue the tradition of celebrating our history and highlighting the future with a modernized facility and new exhibits that capture the imagination. Together with its lecture hall, state-of-the-art classrooms, and flexible exhibit space, the new AMSE will truly be a premier location that the community can take great pride in.”
Construction work started at the new museum in January. The value of the improvements has been estimated at roughly $1.5 million. A building permit was issued December 29.
At one time, there had been some expectation that the National Park Service would move into the new AMSE space with DOE. (The two federal organizations are both involved in the new three-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which includes Oak Ridge.) But for now, the Park Service has a three-year lease at the Children’s Museum in north Oak Ridge.
In the meantime, though, DOE and the National Park Service are working together in different ways at both AMSE and the K-25 History Center in west Oak Ridge. The Park Service could have gallery space, offer exhibits, and show movies at the new AMSE museum, said Niki Nicholas, site manager of the Oak Ridge unit of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Not everyone supports the museum move. One person who had concerns at the June 14 meeting, Kathryn Watson of Oak Ridge, raised concerns about artifacts that might not be shown at the new museum, and she said the old location had a fine setup, even if it needed some work. She thinks city leaders could have done a better job of fighting the museum move, and she believes there should be continued funding for telling the story of the city’s role in helping to end World War II.
“We are losing the history of what happened here,” Watson said. “It is being de-emphasized…I’m real concerned about this move.”
AMSE has been at its current home since the mid-1970s. Its move to Main Street Oak Ridge was part of an agreement that was signed by the City of Oak Ridge and U.S. Department of Energy in December 2016. The current AMSE building could eventually be demolished.
Under the agreement signed by the city and DOE in December 2016, the 17-acre AMSE site on South Tulane Avenue was to be transferred from the U.S. Department of Energy to the City of Oak Ridge.
The city is, in turn, transferring the AMSE property in two phases to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC. That company was set up by RealtyLink, the developer of Main Street Oak Ridge. That’s the 58-acre project to redevelop the former Oak Ridge Mall.
Once it’s finished, the renovated space at Main Street Oak Ridge will be provided by TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC to the city at no cost for 15 years. That means no rent, utilities, or maintenance.
The city will, in turn, sublease that space to DOE at no charge for 15 years. DOE will use it for the new museum.
The current AMSE location has 54,000 square feet. The exhibit space now at AMSE occupies about 15,000 square feet of the current building, not including the museum lobby. DOE has said the current AMSE building is “over-sized” and “operationally challenged,” and the property transfer approved more than a year ago was expected to save more than $2 million in deferred maintenance costs at the museum and greatly reduce operating expenses.
AMSE has been considered one of the top tourist attractions in the Knoxville area, and it attracts about 65,000 visitors per year. Among other activities, AMSE has displayed scientific exhibits and historic photos; hosted community presentations, events, and speeches; and helped tell the story of Oak Ridge, a city built during the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II. AMSE is also the starting point for bus tours of historic sites on the federal government’s Oak Ridge Reservation, and it has previously hosted the National Park Service visitor center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The December 2016 agreement allowing the transfer of the current AMSE property to the city and then to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC had been approved by federal officials, unanimously approved by the Oak Ridge City Council, and then signed in December 2016 by the U.S. Department of Energy and City of Oak Ridge.
Before the AMSE property transfer, RealtyLink had said it was concerned that any development of the museum property that competed with Main Street Oak Ridge could jeopardize its 58-acre open-air mixed-use town center at the former mall site.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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