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Oak Ridge Museum Faces Uncertain Future

M. Michelle Powell

  The city of Oak Ridge and the foundation that supports the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) are asking the public for ideas on how to best preserve one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. 

City officials and the AMSE Foundation are planning a community forum on Thursday, July 24 to discuss the museum’s future.

The AMSE is owned by the US Department of Energy, and managed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  But the management of science museums isn’t considered a critical part of the DOE’s mission and officials there have been trying to unload the museum for more than a decade. Adding urgency is the fact that budgets are tight and the DOE could use the $1.6 million dollars it spends on the museum each year.  

Options include transferring ownership of the museum to the city of Oak Ridge, the AMSE Foundation or Oak Ridge Associated Universities.  But ORNL Communications Manager David Keim, who oversees the museum’s operations, says no one is talking about closing it.   “The current effort aims to reduce costs in a tough budget environment,” Keim tells WUOT News, “and to improve quality to better tell the Oak Ridge story.”

The museum opened in 1949 as the American Museum of Atomic Energy.  It represented an opportunity for the city of Oak Ridge to celebrate its contribution to the development of nuclear technology and to teach children about atomic energy’s potential as a peacetime tool.  It moved into its current location in 1975 and changed its name to the American Museum of Science and Energy three years later.

With the possibility that Oak Ridge could soon become part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park, City Manager Mark Watson says the museum is poised to play an important role.  “The museum’s future, however, is also dependent on how to mitigate federal budgetary constraints and shifting concepts of science museums,” Watson says.

Keim says the gathering of public input at Thursday’s public meeting represents an important step forward toward determining the future of the museum.  “We won’t know the most promising alternative until that process gets underway,” Keim says.