Hands On! celebrates 25 years

Sue Guinn Legg • Sep 4, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Twenty-five years and more than 1.5 million guest visits after it first opened its doors, Hands On! Regional Museum is celebrating a milestone anniversary.

It was Sept. 17, 1987, when a group of investors in Dr. Jan Cavan’s plan to create a participatory, learning-by-doing museum for children facilitated the opening of what was first known as the East Tennessee Children’s Museum.

This Friday night the museum now fondly known to a couple of generations of children as Hands On! will host its biggest birthday party yet.

The anniversary bash will include big trucks to touch and science on the street, as well as free museum tours, live folk rock music by This Mountain, live blues and jazz by Unlimited, and, of course, cake, all beginning at 6 p.m. at the museum at 315 E. Main St.

The celebration will be held in conjunction with downtown Johnson City’s First Friday activities and with a complimentary Reflections on Seeing water color exhibit just across the street in the King building at the Johnson City Arts Council Gallery, which is sponsoring Hands On!’s big party.

According to Ginna Kennedy, the most recent in a succession of five executive directors who have led the museum, what has evolved into a legacy of learning at Hands On! all began with Cavan’s idea “that the city and the region would benefit from hands-on educational activities for children” and a group of 100 investors who each donated $500 to make that idea a reality.

In 1986, the museum’s 100 charter members used their seed money and additional funds contributed by many others in the community to secure a $200,000 construction loan that was used to purchase and renovate the former Woolworth’s building in Johnson City’s then declining downtown business district.

The museum’s opening the following September brought new life downtown and set off a wave of renovation along Main Street that over the years included the museum’s expansion into the neighboring Sears and JCPenney buildings.

Twenty-five years later, Hands On! continues to serve as an anchor of the reviving downtown area and last year was tagged as a key player in the plan for its future development.

A comprehensive plan of action for downtown announced in May 2011 in a joint meeting of the Johnson City Development Authority and the Washington County Economic Development Council listed Hands On!, East Tennessee State University and the Johnson City Farmers Market as revitalization success stories to build and “key stakeholders” in future efforts to make downtown “a distinctive place to visit, live, work and play.”

The plan calls for relocation of Hands On! to space on Cherry Street between Roan and Spring streets where a row of abandoned warehouses would be demolished and a new building constructed for the museum.

With the museum’s relocation, the plan designates the 300 block of East Main Street currently occupied by the museum for development of a greater university presence downtown.

Kennedy said while the museum is “committed to remaining downtown,” she considers the councils’ proposal “a good plan” and is hopeful it will come to fruition, although it has not launched a capital campaign or initiated any feasibility studies on the cost.

“Ideally, we would purchase land and construct a new museum. But we haven’t taken any steps to make it happen,” she said.

“We’re out of space to expand and our goal would be for us to have a building that physically reflects what we do here. We want it to be fun and unique.”

As Hands On! marks its 25th anniversary, Kennedy said, what is most significant is the continuation of what “truly started as a grassroots mission of 100 people who got together and invested their money” to provide “fun, interactive, educational opportunities for children.”

“Here we are 25 years later and we still have this wonderful place where people come and bring their children. ... We hope to keep it going another 25 years.”

For more information about the museum and its anniversary celebration, including a competition for songwriters interested in composing a Hands On! jingle and photo contest for past museum visitors, call 434-HAND (4263) or visit www.handsonmuseum.org.

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