Three decades since founding downtown and moving, Hands On! doing better than ever

Brandon Paykamian • May 12, 2019 at 10:34 PM

After Hands On! Regional Museum opened in downtown Johnson City in 1987, the center’s interactive educational exhibits attracted thousands of tourists and families throughout the community, making the center a fixture in the downtown district.

Then, after nearly 32 years, the center moved to East Tennessee State University’s Gray Fossil Site and Natural Museum near Daniel Boone High School and changed its name to Hands On! Discovery Center.

With the change in name and location came 12,000 extra square feet and an increasing number of visitors. On the museum’s website, CEO Andy Marquart said the biggest positive change the center has witnessed has been in its audience.

While many locals were sad to see the museum leave its downtown location in Johnson City, Marquart said the small space limited them in “content and experiences, but also in the number of people we could serve.”

“We are truly an all-ages experience now, and we have transformed our experiences to engage more people and in a more meaningful way,” the CEO said of the change after more than three decades downtown.

Since moving, the museum – once located in a former department store – has reported a 40 percent increase in attendance, a 54 percent increase in group visits and a 78 percent increase in membership sales, as well as visitors from all across the United States and about 15 countries. 

The center greets about 70,000 visitors every year, provides thousands of programs in arts, sciences and humanities, and has been selected by readers of the Marquee Magazine as the “best museum in the region.”

In the past, the museum has hosted interactive events and exhibits on just about everything in the fields of science, technology, engineering and the arts. The center’s website says the center often features “immersive exhibits” like a Tesla coil, giant building blocks, a 3-story Paleo Tower, an art studio and more.

The old downtown location used to feature events and exhibits centered around paleontology. Now, the center is even more suited for events like these.

“At this new location, Hands On! Discovery Center has expanded its programs and exhibits to align with the Tennessee state Department of Education K-12th grade curriculum standards and specialty tours are offered for college students studying subjects such as anthropology, archaeology, environmental sciences, geology and paleontology,” Vice President of Marketing and Events Kristine Carter said in an emailed statement to the Press. 

“The daily capacity is more than triple at the previous location and the Discovery Center is on track to serve nearly 100,000 visitors the first year, an increase of over 60% and increase in the Gray Fossil Site Museum attendance over 460%,” she continued. “Since opening at the new location in June of 2018, guests have visited from all 50 states, 14 foreign countries and 2/3 of the counties in Tennessee. School groups routinely travel from as far as North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.” 

Carter said the Discovery Center is currently looking ahead to the summer and is planning a co-hosted project, “The Big Dig,” which will allow participants the opportunity to work alongside the paleontologists on the dig site and in the prep lab.

Additional exhibits planned for 2019 include a Pollinator Garden and Children’s Farmers Market, as well as a complete renovation of the existing natural history exhibitions.

“In a time where the trend is all digital, the experience at Hands On! Discovery Center encourages guests to put down their devices and interact together to create family memories they can share for a lifetime,” Carter said. 

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