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VOL. 42 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2018

Science and Energy Museum gets new home, director

By Hollie Deese

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American Museum of Science and Energy, part of the Main Street Oak Ridge redevelopment of the Oak Ridge Mall

School groups from across the region have for decades made the journey to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, learning the story of the city that was built during World War II for the top-secret Manhattan Project as much as they were informed about science and energy.

The museum property, owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by Alutiiq, sat on the same spot of nearly 18 acres for 40 years. The DOE wanted a change, the city helped with the deal, a developer joined the effort, and the iconic museum is getting a new home.

The museum will reopen in the Main Street Oak Ridge development, the former Oak Ridge Mall, in a renovated Sears, one-third the size of its previous location. This fall the museum plans on holding a multi-phase opening over several weeks, with a grand opening event October 18, 2018, almost two years after the land was initially transferred.

A new director, Julia Bussinger, will guide the way.

“They wanted to build something new, and I had been looking for my next museum that needs help to grow, to start something special,” Bussinger says. “For me, it’s a privilege to come exactly when the museum is about to move.”

The AMSE was established in 1949 to provide educational programs focused on the Department of Energy’s past, present and future missions. Today the museum uses interactive, curriculum-based education programs for school groups and the general public, hosts permanent and rotating exhibits, provides live demonstrations, has events and offers summer camp and outreach programs for students.

The original museum was located in an old wartime cafeteria and was named the American Museum of Atomic Energy. It provided guided tours to visitors promoting the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The recent facility opened in 1975 and continued to provide the general public with energy information. The name changed to the American Museum of Science and Energy in 1978.

Bussinger came on board July 16. She has a wide range of museum leadership experience, including as executive director and museum director for Benicia Historical Museum in California, and developing and building with stakeholders the new Aerospace Museum of California, which is the former McClellan Air Force Base.

She was also museum director concurrently for two city of El Paso museums, the El Paso Museum of History and El Paso Museum of Archeology, and recently led the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs to the development of their new museum.

Ken Mayes served as the director of AMSE prior to Bussinger. He resigned in July after joining the museum in 2004.

The museum attracts approximately 65,000 visitors a year and is considered a top tourist attraction in the Knoxville area. Bussinger expects the guest numbers to stay the same despite the decrease in space of the new location, thanks to rotating galleries and various exploration zones, so different groups can be in different places of the museum at the same time.

Exhibits in the new AMSE will tell the story of Oak Ridge’s contributions to scientific and engineering advancements and will fall within one of five major categories: Energy Leadership, Big Science, National Security, Environmental Restoration, and the Manhattan Project.


“It is drama, it is experience,” Bussinger explains of the new museum. “Basically you learn in the best way. It’s for all generations. It is a relatively new approach, but many museums are using this special design to provide this experience.”

The labor that is being used to conduct the physical move from the Tulane AMSE to the Main Street AMSE is included in current ongoing DOE Oak Ridge Office contracts providing that service. When the museum reopens the staff will not be reduced, with a combination of 14 full- and part-time employees.

“This is a process,” Bussinger says of packing everything up and moving it to the new space.

Luckily, she says it was about 99 percent done before she joined the staff. And the last one percent is all about the details.

“We’re telling the story of national and global security, of science, research and genetic technology development,” Bussinger says. “Our goal is to be a primary source for science education and outreach in the region.”

Getting it done

The city helped in making the deal.

“The whole exercise was essentially initiated by the Department of Energy, who for some time had been trying to figure out what to do with the property and with the museum, and what the museum should be and not be,” says Ray Evans, economic development consultant to the Oak Ridge city manager.

“They were having significant maintenance problems with the existing building and once we, the city, knew that they had some interest in doing something with the property, we made the developer of the Main Street Project aware of that.”

The property was transferred to the city and will be developed by RealtyLink, a company set up by Main Street Oak Ridge. The agreement was signed by Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz and Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch.

“The city took possession of 18 acres in December ‘16 or January ‘17,” Evans continues. “We were able to immediately transfer the front 7.4 acres to RealtyLink, and they have submitted a development plan for that. They actually have a building under construction as we speak that is a tire discount store.”

Evans adds the developer has plans for 8,000 additional square feet of retail space, and a 55,000 square foot big box that could be retail or could be grocery.

In exchange for DOE’s transferring ownership of the AMSE property to the city, the city agreed to provide DOE with a 15-year, no-cost lease for space to house a new, state-of-the-art science museum, an 18,000-square-foot space with a newly-designed exhibit gallery, interactive exhibits and hands-on activities for school-age visitors, as well as a lecture hall and classrooms.

“As in most large projects, there are some local incentives involved in the development,” Evans explains. “And so the city and the county agreed early on the Main Street Project to do $13 million tax incentive financing plan. And that is basically where the increase in sales and property tax revenues that are caused by the development of property can be pledged toward paying off a portion of the construction note.”

Two weeks ago the DOE accepted the renovated facility from RealtyLink. The DOE said the transfer will save $2 million in deferred maintenance costs over the old location and reduce operating expenses. But after the 15 years is completed, the museum will be responsible for renewing their lease and paying rent like any other tenant in the refurbished strip mall.

“I know we have some loyalists in Oak Ridge that thought nothing ever should happen to the old museum, but being a long, long time Oak Ridger since first grade, my opinion is that the existing museum had gotten rather stale, and not very contemporary,” Evans says.

When Evans’ family first moved to Oak Ridge they lived in the west end of town where the original museum was that was built in 1949.

“I probably visited that museum a dozen times,” he adds. “It was a quick bike ride, and fun to do. The current museum was constructed in ‘74 and to me it had just gotten tired.”

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