Hanford museum CREHST faces difficult time as it merges with Reach interpretive center

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 20, 2013 

A drive down Richland's George Washington Way about a year from now no longer will provide a glimpse of the vintage cream and maroon Hanford buses parked outside the CREHST museum.

The museum, after about 18 years in the Tri-Cities, will close about the time the new Hanford Reach Interpretive Center opens.

The museum already is entering a final year of change.

Ellen Low, the executive director, has resigned to move back to her home in England.

Visitors last week might have noticed some changes to exhibits. Some of the items that tell the story of the Hanford nuclear reservation, a focus of much of the museum, have been packed up to return to the Department of Energy.

That's just the start as DOE works to reconcile what at CREHST is owned by the federal government and what is owned by the museum. The DOE items, most of them kept in storage, should be packed up and in the federal government's custody by the end of May.

CREHST -- the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology -- has served as the curator for the Hanford collection of historical items from World War II through the Cold War until this winter.

Then it declined a new contract to perform the service, deciding that changed terms in the contract were not compatible with the museum's needs.

There are changes to exhibits, but visitors to the museum still will have a great experience, said Shirley Long, president of the Environmental Science and Technology Foundation, CREHST's parent organization.

Exhibited items that have been removed to be returned to DOE have been replaced with other Hanford-related exhibits from the extensive collection owned outright by the museum.

"The public will see minimal difference," she said.

Board members say the end of CREHST as it is now has been planned since about 2004, when the Tri-Cities had the opportunity to create the interpretive center, dubbed the Reach.

During the years, plans have changed, much of it because of the rocky history of the planned interpretive center.

Now construction has begun, and it looks like a scaled-back version of what once was planned will open in June 2014.

There will be limited display space, at least initially, but the interpretive center will be given as much of CREHST's collection as it wants to continue to tell the Hanford story.

"This isn't really the end," Long said. "It's a new beginning."

Plans made in 2004

CREHST was created in 1996 when DOE, dealing with budget cuts, wanted to move the 6,000-square-foot Hanford Museums of Science and Industry out of the Federal Building in Richland.

The CREHST foundation board was formed as a private nonprofit to take over display of the story of Hanford's history. The Fast Flux Test Facility visitor center at Hanford was moved to where the building continues to house CREHST on Lee Boulevard between the Columbia River and George Washington Way.

About half of the building continues to be devoted to telling the story of all things Hanford and how the atomic age was born there.

Visitors learn about life at the booming Hanford construction camp that sprang up in the desert to house 50,000 workers who raced to build mysterious facilities and then used them to create plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Visitors learn about Hanford's role in the Cold War and current efforts to clean up massive environmental contamination left from past plutonium production.

Docents, many of whom lived in Richland when it was still a government-owned town or worked at Hanford in its early days, are at the museum to guide visitors and share first-hand memories.

By the early 2000s, the CREHST foundation board was interested in a bigger building, and Battelle donated $1 million to build a new facility if the community could come up with a $2 million match.

But then the Hanford Reach National Monument was formed, and it didn't make sense to have CREHST and also an interpretive center linked to the monument, said Ron Lerch, who serves on the CREHST foundation board and also the Reach board.

CREHST and Friends of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center proposed that the two work together to build a center, and the newly formed Richland Public Facilities District issued $7 million in sales tax bonds in 2004 to create a regional center.

The bond description said the center would include two parts -- the CREHST museum and science center, and an interpretive center to tell the story of the new Hanford Reach National Monument. Construction was to begin in 2004.

The CREHST foundation board planned that once the new center opened, the present museum would close, Lerch said.

But a planned location at Columbia Point had to be abandoned because of the rigorous federal permitting requirements for land considered sacred to Native American tribes in the region. Supporters also were unable to raise $40.5 million for a planned 61,000-square-foot museum.

"For a lot of years, people were saying it would not be built," Lerch said. Supporters of CREHST moved on with developing the museum off George Washington Way.

But the Reach was given fresh life when plans were scaled back and changed to build the center in phases, starting with a 24,000-square-foot building, which includes 10,000 square feet of unfinished basement at a new location at the west end of Columbia Park.

The $1 million donated by Battelle to CREHST has been transferred to the Reach, honoring the wishes of Battelle, Lerch said.

But the scaled-back plan that has allowed construction to start on the center has limited the space that will be available to tell the Hanford story, as now told at CREHST.

Fish and Wildlife is paying for exhibits in the new center's permanent gallery space, which will tell the history of the region as it revolves around the Columbia River, starting with the ice age floods. The exhibit likely will tell some of the Hanford history, but for in-depth information on that and other topics, a second gallery for rotating exhibits will be used.

When the center opens next year, Executive Director Lisa Toomey hopes to display CREHST and DOE items that tell the story of Hanford there. She also expects it to include other exhibits, such as information on the birth of the Mid-Columbia's wine industry.

No longer Hanford curator

Complicating the transition from CREHST to the Reach are changes at DOE.

DOE annually has given $331,000 to CREHST to preserve and conserve Hanford artifacts for the future. But with a tight budget forcing the layoff of 2,000 Hanford workers, the federal money available for CREHST also was cut, dropping to $80,000 in fall 2011.

When the contract was up for renewal this year, the money available remained at $80,000. But DOE contractor Mission Support Alliance also made changes in the contract it was offering to CREHST. The museum's two curators would be based at Hanford, making them largely unavailable to also help with CREHST work.

Changes were needed in the contract to allow curators to spend more time at historic Hanford facilities as buildings are quickly being torn down at the nuclear reservation, according to Mission Support Alliance.

But the CREHST board declined the contract, saying that with the museum's shrinking staff, they needed to be available at the museum.

Hanford artifacts now are being prepared for return to DOE, which plans to store them temporarily at a Hanford warehouse.

Some items might have been privately donated to CREHST. But if they came from Hanford, the government has ownership unless a receipt showing the item was purchased by the donor can be produced, according to DOE officials.

"The ultimate idea is to keep the collection together so it can be displayed and interpreted," said Colleen French, DOE government affairs program manager. DOE will work on a long-term solution to make the collection available to the community, she said.

DOE offered to let CREHST continue to display DOE items that were part of its Hanford exhibit. But CREHST chose to exchange DOE items on display with those in the museum's permanent collection.

Changes include returning models of FFTF and Hanford's K Reactors and bringing out models of one of Hanford's underground double-shell tanks and N Reactor.

Transition already underway

The staff of the Reach has been invited to walk through CREHST, both its public displays and stored collections, in the next few weeks to start planning what it wants to accept as part of its collection.

They will be looking at an institution that has been in place many years and developing plans on how to incorporate that institutional memory, Toomey said.

Decisions will need to be made on what to do with the 1953 GMC bus that carried Hanford workers back and forth from Richland to the nuclear reservation. There's also a 1940s travel trailer where a family once lived in less than 150 square feet of space in the Hanford construction camp trailer park -- then touted as the largest trailer park in the world.

A transition team has been formed with representatives from CREHST, Reach and the public facilities district. Strategic planning started months ago, but CREHST was clear there would be no transition until construction started, Toomey said. That happened March 7.

It's not just CREHST's collection that the transition team must consider. There also are questions about what will happen to the CREHST staff of about 10, most of them part-time, and its dedicated volunteer docents.

CREHST staff will be invited to apply for jobs at the Reach, Toomey said, and she also would welcome the docents. Lerch is hoping that the 400 CREHST members will become the charter members of the Reach.

It's been a difficult time for staff and docents, after years when it looked like the Reach would not be built, and there's been "a lot of emotion," Lerch said.

He became involved with the Reach because he wanted to make sure the Hanford story was told. Initially, the Reach might not be large enough to tell the whole story, but there are plans to expand the interpretive center with a second building someday.

In the meantime, docents will be asked to tell a broader story at the Reach, talking to visitors about the other exhibits there, Toomey said.

The transition will happen without Low, who is leaving May 1. She's brought her passion for history to CREHST since she was hired as executive director in 2009. "I've had a wonderful time," she said. But now she and her husband, Nick, plan to return to England to be closer to their children and grandchildren, she said.

The transition from CREHST to the Reach is a major change, Long said.

As disruptive as change is, the end result with a new interpretive center with room to grow will be positive, Lerch said.

"What the community will see will be bigger and better," Long said.

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