Exit interview: Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum President and CEO Mel Drumm

To mark the occasion of Drumm's retirement, we asked him a few questions about the greatest changes, challenges, and joys of his AAHOM tenure.
After an eventful 18 years at the helm of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, President/CEO Mel Drumm plans to step down at the end of this year. 

Drumm’s legacy includes AAHOM’s 2017 merger with Leslie Science and Nature Center (LSNC) as well as its programming collaborations with Ypsilanti’s Yankee Air Museum. Under his tenure, the museum has also renovated or introduced exhibits including STEAM Park, Engineers on a Roll, H2Oh!, and All About You. And he's led the museum to not merely survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but thrive, to the point of now operating in the black.

"We are in great shape," Drumm says. "I never thought I’d be able to say that after coming through two and a half years of the pandemic, but we are doing really well. The organization is stable. Our attendance is back up."

Drumm says that felt like the perfect moment to hand off leadership of the organization. He says the time commitment of the job – sometimes 70-80 hours a week – has become challenging, especially as he's developed serious health issues in recent years.
Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum President and CEO Mel Drumm.
"My board’s been behind me, my staff’s been behind me, but I’ve not been able to move as quickly as I’ve been wanting to move," he says. 

However, he notes, he's still hoping to continue supporting similar organizations through consulting or other work.

"I’m going to do my very best not to retire," Drumm says. "I’m calling this more of a ‘reset.’"

To mark the occasion, we asked Drumm a few questions about his AAHOM tenure.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What have been the biggest changes you’ve witnessed over the course of your career at AAHOM?

A: The technology that is available to everyone today has really forced us to up our game, as far as quality of the exhibits [and] the more immersive nature of displays. I think back to when I came here from the [Detroit Science Center] – we were building exhibits there that were like individual lab experiments that you'd see in a physics class. Today, everybody's really looking for a very immersive experience where you can escape into some other realm that you wouldn't be able to in a normal day. Recently, there was a Van Gogh exhibit that's been traveling the country that has huge projections, and you walk through it. You see the same thing in science, in a lot of our new exhibits. That's the number one [change]. 

I think also the internet has really been a huge factor. We provide programming to schools all over the world, based upon the internet capacity we have by being in Ann Arbor, so we can broadcast our programs anywhere, anytime. [When the pandemic began,] a lot of museums were just trying to figure that out, because they were shut down, saying, "Oh my gosh, what do we do?" But we'd been doing that for 15 years.

Q: Besides having previous experience with virtual programming, what factors helped keep AAHOM afloat when the doors were closed for so long?

A: If you asked, "What's the secret sauce of the Hands-On Museum?" it's the idea of collaborating with others. It's the idea of putting your ego at the door and saying, "We're better when we work together." Being able to bring [LSNC and AAHOM] together the way we have has far, far exceeded anything we could think could happen, from partnerships to funding to the program capabilities.

I mean, think about when the pandemic hit. People are saying you can't touch anything, you can't do anything. Our very name is "Hands-On." We felt very toxic for a while. And so what can we do? We could take our programming outside at Leslie, which was wonderful. So suddenly, Leslie had our back, and they could do programming that we couldn’t do. So we weren’t just stopped completely. We were slowed, but not stopped. And several years ago, Leslie had a huge environmental issue that came up. When that happened, we had their back. [Editor's note: Drumm refers to a period in 2019-2020 when AAHOM temporarily hosted some LSNC programming while LSNC completed environmental remediation for heavy metals in its soil.] So that’s the kind of partnership that’s good.

Q: From a leadership perspective, what were the toughest moments of the COVID-19 shutdown?

A: The most difficult thing for me was that we had the most incredible team of people working here, and we lost more than half of them. We tried and tried and tried to keep them. We got [Paycheck Protection Program] funding, and we self-funded, but when we realized that it wasn't going to end – at some point, you just have to call it. It will take us years to recover the loss of those people. And that's what hit me the hardest, because our people are what make this place go.
Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum President and CEO Mel Drumm.
[Another challenge was that] we didn’t know when it was really going to end. So the hardest lesson as a leadership team is that we couldn't make any real decisions. You make a decision, and five or 10 minutes later, it would have to change because some situation had changed. Everybody wants to have stability around them, and when leadership can't make any solid decisions, it feels chaotic. And the entire pandemic felt very chaotic. It was very tiring, very stressful. But at the same time, our community rallied around us.

Q: What kind of reassessments happened during the shutdown?

A: That really was the one benefit of the pandemic, that we were able to stop and say, "Okay, what have we been doing that we're really happy about? What can we do better? What are the things that we're wanting to do?" I always try to tell people that about 75% of our operating budget comes from people walking through the front door. It's the admission fee, it's the membership, it’s the program fee. We're six months from being out of business if we don't remain relevant. So while a lot of organizations just basically stopped during the pandemic, we had enough resources that we could say, "Okay, when we have the chance to reopen, let's have people walking in here going, ‘Oh my gosh, it's all changed!’" – hopefully for the better.

Q: What kept you at AAHOM for such a long time? What was your favorite part of the job?

A: Being able to spend time with the visitors in the building. I was sitting in the lobby just a few weeks ago, and a young family came in with some toddlers. They were probably 2 to 3 years old, and they all walked in and they stopped in their tracks and looked up at this really wonderful metallic tree in the lobby that's all lit up with LEDs. It's a very artistic piece that actually came out of one of the ArtPrize competitions in Grand Rapids a few years ago. And their eyes were bright and wide open. And the little one said, "Oh my gosh, where are we? This is wonderful." And of course, I had a smile on my face, and I chatted with the parents, and the parents said that this was the first time [the kids] had been in any public place ever, because they haven't been out anywhere during the pandemic.

And you often see people here that would never meet the person standing next to them anywhere else in the real world. There are no barriers here, and it's a very social experience. We all get so caught up in our devices and hectic days. To stand next to someone and talk to them and learn about something together is truly an amazing moment. So I try to spend time every single day just out there interacting with the visitors, watching them, seeing what's going on. It's the best part of the job.

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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