Kaye Johnson wants the Oak Ridge centerpiece to be a top state attractionKaye Johnson has a vision for the American Museum of Science and Energy. More exhibits. More science. More visitors. More special activities.
Johnson has led the AMSE program since the Lab became affiliated with the museum. That came about when the DOE’s Office of Science agreed to support the museum after the previous funder withdrew. Although the museum is still run by a subcontracted firm, ORNL is the host institution. Johnson wants to make the most of the collaboration.
“I want to see the museum become one of the top 25 tourist attractions in the state,” Johnson proclaims. “Granted, it’s hard to compete with Dollywood, because we don’t have a Dolly, or Graceland, because we don’t have any of Elvis’s stuff.”
The AMSE is a ways away from the top 25. However, if the museum’s competition is narrowed to the Knoxville area, it fares much better as a favorite place to go. “We’re second in attendance in the Knoxville area only to the Knoxville Zoo,” she says.
“We draw in about 140,000 people a year to the museum. We fare pretty well on our home ground. To break into the state’s top 25, AMSE would have to up that total by about 100,000.”
How would one go about doing that?
“To increase attendance, you need good, new and traveling exhibits,” she says. “You should advertise, but as a government agency we can’t do that. At the same time, AMSE has the opportunity to be the window to the world for the Office of Science’s accomplishments.”
One of Johnson’s dreams for achieving that vision is a virtual one. In short, using virtual reality to bring the public deeper into the national labs.
“One of the most important collaborations between ORNL and the museum is the summer public tours. My vision is a year-round virtual tour. We could use the IPIX technology developed in Oak Ridge. Tourgoers could go into an auditorium before the public tour—or in the off season—and take a virtual tour of the Lab. Or they could do it over the Internet. They’d be able to see the research tools that are difficult to physically access. They could visit the Mouse House, or the High Flux Isotope Reactor—actually see the Cherenkov glow. Maybe even recreate the sounds and smells. Tourgoers could actually experience the size and beauty of this place.”
Johnson adds that the other national labs could be included in such a tour.
“I want us to tell the science story—the contributions that research has made to our day-to-day lives,” Johnson says.
Before the Office of Science and ORNL entered the scene, the AMSE’s future was somewhat clouded, a situation that alarmed many Oak Ridge citizens. The museum has been a community icon for as long as there’s been a city and has introduced many of the nation’s youth to science beyond the classroom. (In past years science programs from AMSE were trucked to schools all over the country.) Even today, the museum’s weekend events for children are often chaotically crowded.
ORNL Director Al Trivelpiece meets "Little Al," a remotely controlled character the American Museum of Science and Energy has acquired to greet guests, perform in science programs and enhance special events at the museum.
“We have well-attended events,” Johnson says. “In January we had our building sessions for the wildlife houses and feeder kits. I always purchase extra kits for gifts to relatives. I have a little great-nephew, Seth, who bangs them together for special occasions throughout the year.”
February hosts an engineering exhibit, an exhibit on African Americans’ role in science and technology and the annual model bridge- building contest. Johnson says plans are under way for a 30th Earth Day celebration in April.
There always seems to be a lot going on. Two ORNL sites of interest, the Graphite Reactor Museum and the New Bethel Church Interpretive Center, could also become part of the AMSE historical experience.
Johnson believes ORNL’s liaison with AMSE will be seen as an advantage by the new contractor, UT-Battelle.
“With its extreme interest in community outreach, UT-Battelle thinks the museum is important,” she says. “Battelle has experience with the museums near Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and of course the University of Tennessee has its excellent McClung museum.”
Johnson says time will only improve the effectiveness of the ORNL-AMSE union.
“Since the two joined, we’re working together better every day. We’re pulling the assets and resources of AMSE and ORNL together more routinely.
“We’ve made major accomplishments in upgrading existing facilities and getting new equipment—in general, making a positive impression,” Johnson says.
“Today, the museum’s staircase banister shines.”—B.C.