ANN ARBOR, MI – Mel Drum declined when he was first offered a position at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.
He worried that the museum world wouldn’t usually pay very well.
“I wanted to go into the corporate world where you could make a living and have a family — all the things that would attract someone,” Drumm said. “And I’ve always regretted it.”
When years later he received a second offer, Drum jumped at the opportunity. That was 18 years ago.
“You’re in this kind of work because you like it, you want to make a difference,” Drum said. “To be able to come back here so many years later was – oh my God – it’s something I never expected.”
Drum, who has been CEO of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum since 2004, announced earlier this month that he is leaving his position at the end of the year. The decision was influenced by ongoing health issues, including a recent cancer scare, Drum said, adding that even without the health issues, he would have planned to leave in the next few years, especially given the soon-to-be-updated strategic plan.
“I don’t want anyone to be in the middle of the strategic plan. You started all these things,” Drum said. “It’s better to have the good will of the organization in mind and say, let me retire with everything, hopefully, in the best shape it can be in so that somebody can pick up and carry on.” “
Over the past 18 years, Drumm has guided the museum, a touch-based children’s museum dedicated to science education, through $4 million in renovations, two administrative partnerships and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two things have driven his entire career at Drama – educating people about science and creating an immersive, theatrical experience. He previously worked in the theater producing laser shows, a skill set he has brought to his museum work.
“I would see people sitting in all the seats and then all of a sudden the lights would go out and the stage would light up,” Drum said. “You just hear the collective ‘ahh’ and I knew they had escaped.”
Providing that escape is key to the museum’s success, he said.
“We have to have something that’s more of an art aesthetic,” Drumm said. “People respond to things that are beautiful and interesting and artistic.”
But creating that chance for escape wasn’t always easy. Like other non-profit organizations, funding is one of the biggest obstacles for the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.
“The philanthropic community has been incredibly generous to us; the visitors have been generous to us, but there are so many things we want to do,” Drum said. “There were days I thought I might as well be in Iowa because it was so hard to get funding.”
Although the museum previously had to turn away schools and programs because it could not staff, it has recently doubled its revenue and now has an endowment of $2 million.
One thing that added to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum’s success and became Drumm’s crowning achievement, he said, was the merger with two nearby educational organizations.
The museum merged with the Leslie Science and Nature Center in 2016, followed by a marketing agreement with the Yankee Air Museum in 2017. Joining the organizations allowed them to share administrative costs, such as education directors and marketing teams, and work together in each off-season organization.
The benefits of the merger were especially highlighted after a contamination problem at the science center shut it down just days before summer camp.
“That was the moment that really brought our teams together because they were in crisis and they needed us,” Drum said. “And then a year later the pandemic hit. Well, “hands” has overnight become the most toxic set of words you can find.
Although the museum lost 60 percent of its staff during the pandemic, there was one bright spot — the ability to install $2.5 million worth of new exhibits. One new gallery includes STEAM PARK, a partnership with Toyota that allows visitors to see engineering through “a 5-year-old’s perspective,” Drumm said.
“It’s really looking at the engineering world from the inside out and looking at it in a way that’s very artistic,” Drum said.
The show stopper of the gallery is the ‘time switch’, a locally created artistic representation of a 13th century clock. The gallery, along with the $350,000 water research feature, are two of Drum’s favorite exhibits.
The museum will begin the search for Drum’s successor this fall.
“I never thought I’d have a chance to come back, and then to be here for the last 18 years — it’s not work,” Drumm said. “It was a gift.”
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