Hands-On Museum’s outgoing CEO leaves a legacy of art and creativity

ANN ARBOR, MI — Mel Drumm turned down when he was first offered a position at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.

He feared that the museum world generally paid very well.

“I wanted to get 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 always regretted it.”

When he received a second offer years later, Drumm jumped at the chance. It was 18 years ago.

“You’re in this kind of work because you enjoy it, you want to make a difference,” Drumm said. “To have the opportunity to come back here many years later was – oh my God – that’s something I didn’t expect.”

Drumm, who has served as CEO of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum since 2004, announced earlier this month that he was stepping down at the end of the year. The decision was influenced by ongoing health issues, including a recent cancer scare, Drumm said, adding that even without health issues he would have planned to leave in the next few years, especially given a strategic plan which will soon be updated.

“I don’t want anyone halfway through a strategic plan. You have all of these things going on,” Drumm said. “It’s better to have the goodwill of the organization in mind and say let me retire with everything hopefully in the best possible shape so someone can pick up and carry on.”

For the past 18 years, Drumm has accompanied the museum, a children’s tactile museum dedicated to science education, through $4 million in renovations, two administrative partnerships and a COVID-19 pandemic.

Two things have guided Drumm throughout his career: educating people about science and creating an immersive, theatrical experience. He previously worked with theater producing laser shows, a skill set he 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,” Drumm said. “You just heard the collective ‘ah’ and I knew they got away.”

Provided the escape is key to the museum’s success, he said.

“We need to have something more like an artistic aesthetic,” Drumm said. “People respond to things that are beautiful, interesting and artistic.”

But creating that chance to escape hasn’t always been easy. Like other nonprofit organizations, funding is one of the biggest hurdles for the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.

“The philanthropic community has been incredibly generous to us; visitors have been generous with us, but there are so many things we want to do,” Drumm said. “There were days when I thought I might as well be in Iowa because it was so hard to get funding.”

Although the museum has had to turn schools and programs away in the past because it couldn’t staff them, it recently doubled its revenue and now has an endowment of $2 million.

One thing that added to the success of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and became Drumm’s crowning achievement, he said, was a merger with two neighboring 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 directors of education and marketing teams, and working together in every organization. out of season.

The benefits of the merger were particularly highlighted after a contamination problem at the science center closed it days before his summer camp.

“It was the moment that really brought our teams together because they were in crisis and they needed us,” Drumm said. “And then a year later, the pandemic hit. Well, ‘hands on’, overnight, became the most toxic set of words you could find.”

Although the museum lost 60% of its staff during the pandemic, there was one silver lining: being able to install $2.5 million in new exhibits. A new gallery includes STEAM PARK, a partnership with Toyota that lets visitors see engineering through the “perspective of a 5-year-old,” Drumm said.

“It’s really about looking at the engineering world from the inside out and looking in a very artistic way,” Drumm said.

The centerpiece of the gallery is the ‘time switch’, a locally created artistic representation of a 13th century clock. The gallery, along with a $350,000 water exploration feature, are two of Drumm’s favorite exhibits.

The museum will launch a search for Drumm’s successor this fall.

“I never thought I would have a chance to come back, and then be here for the last 18 years – it hasn’t been a job,” Drumm said. “It was a gift.”

Read more from The Ann Arbor News:

Major Ann Arbor riverfront redevelopment gets $20 million from the state

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