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Museum celebrates 75 years

Tony Schnadelbach, director of volunteers and public programs, stands outside the American Museum of Science and Energy at 115 E. Main St. in Oak Ridge. (photo:Ben Pounds )
Sitting at its third location, the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge is celebrating 75 years.

The museum opened on March 19, 1949, as the Museum of Atomic Energy.

Tony Schnadelbach, director of volunteers and public programs for the museum said it opened the same day Oak Ridge opened its gates to the public, dropping the secrecy of its World War II days.

During the war, the city, then run by the federal government, had enriched uranium for bomb tests and bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

While the secrecy during that time gave Oak Ridge its nickname “Secret City,” the museum, four years after the bombing, marked a desire to talk to the public about the once-secret scientific advances.

“The big thing was that the Atomic Energy Commission at that time wanted to showcase to the general public what this new atomic age was all about and really teach all the citizens about the new uses of the atom that were coming into America,” Schnadelbach said.

The first building was at Jefferson Circle in an old wartime cafeteria. In 1975, the museum moved to Tulane Avenue.

It changed its name to the American Museum of Science and Energy in 1978.

“That way we could really start talking about all the different kinds of energy that the Department of Energy was working on, as well as look at all the different sciences that are coming out and really focus on all of those great scientific achievements throughout the nation,” Shnadelbach said.

The museum left that area in 2018, moving to its current smaller facility at 115 East Main St.

Despite the smaller size, the museum still has room for temporary and permanent interactive exhibits, as well as a spot for labs and activities, and an auditorium with the museum’s iconic hair-raising Van Der Graff generator. There are exhibits to help guests learn about science, energy and history-related topics and even a 3D-printed roadster and jeep.

A temporary exhibit sponsored by Kairos Nuclear lets visitors know how that company’s future reactor planned for Oak Ridge will operate It will run through June.

“I feel like AMSE has changed in the same way that the scientific community has changed,” Schnadelbach said, adding that it has reflected advancements in science and technology, particularly those coming out of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“We have evolved in the same way that technology has evolved, and we’re always here to share all of these advancements with the community,” he said.

Shnadelbach said the museum has stayed committed to Oak Ridge, informing visitors of the importance of science education within it and the broader region by working with various schools and colleges.

The AMSE Foundation, a 501 c3 nonprofit, runs the museum working with DOE and ORNL as well as some of those facilities’ retirees, Schnadelbach said.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.