The origins of the National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) in Sheffield go back nearly one hundred years, yet arguably it has come further in the last decade that at any time in its history. It’s a unique story of a unique museum; one that has grown to become the world’s largest combined 999 museum but is still relatively unknown both regionally and in the wider heritage sector.
It's been a long journey from the very first Sheffield Fire Museum – opened at the city’s Rockingham Street station in 1931 – to the modern NESM. In the early 1980s a group of enthusiasts took over a small section of a former combined police, fire and ambulance station in the city centre and opened to the public for one day a week, with just one fire engine and a handful of objects. The acquisition of the South Yorkshire police archive led to a rebrand as the South Yorkshire Fire and Police Museum before NESM came into being almost 10 years ago. The museum now occupies all of the Victorian former station, preserving original features like the police cells and engine house. The chance to explore this historic building is as much a draw for visitors as the treasures inside it.
In this Tardis-like building the museum tells the stories of all our emergency services in peace and war, across three floors of vintage vehicles, original objects and dynamic displays. It houses a treasure trove of items from the biggest (like a 47 foot lifeboat) to the smallest. The collection boasts more than 600,000 objects from historic uniforms and badges to medical equipment, and includes about 150 historic vehicles of which around 40 are on display at the museum at any one time. NESM also cares for a number of unique items from other organisations, such as HM Coastguard.
Since it took on the NESM name in 2015 the museum has enjoyed a period of major growth, increasing visitor numbers five-fold - to around 36,000 a year – and boosting its income significantly. It has also moved away from being entirely volunteer-run to operating on a more professional footing with a small team of paid staff members. This development led, in 2022, to NESM being crowned the UK’s best family friendly museum at the Kids in Museums awards, a huge coup for a relatively small, provincial museum.
All this has been achieved despite the immense challenge of operating as a self-funded, independent museum in a crowded, competitive and ever-changing market. No longer are visitors satisfied with a collection of old objects hidden in glass cases. They are expecting to be entertained, enthused and engaged with history and to feel that they have spent their time - and, importantly, their money – well. Museums must deliver as a visitor attraction, a place of learning, a community hub and a guardian of heritage. It’s a tough balance to strike.
One key way that NESM has approached this, and something that has been praised by the Kids in Museums judges and general visitors alike, is to tell the stories of the emergency services in an exciting, hands-on way. Interactive galleries, covering topics from the Great Fire of London to modern fire safety and staying safe in the water, mingle with dressing up stations, digital activities, vehicles to climb in and games to play. As one visitor reported, “I was quite shocked at how much was free to touch and get hands on with. There were lots of opportunities for kids to interact so that adults could explore the exhibits in their way too, and read any information they wanted to.” Rave reviews across platforms like Google and Tripadvisor show that NESM is hitting the mark when it comes to engaging even the youngest visitors in history.
The museum is also making efforts to reach out to those in the community who might not normally engage in heritage, through initiatives like its History Club – which gives vulnerable or homeless adults the chance to co-curate exhibitions – and by donating free tickets to low income families. Mindful of its core role to preserve and conserve a large collection of emergency services heritage, it is also working towards accreditation for its archive, a significant step forward in its development.
Of course, all this costs money; something that a self-funded museum and charity, that needs to earn everything it spends, doesn’t have a surplus of very often. But for NESM this isn’t a barrier to improvement. The museum is tackling the challenge through innovative exhibition design backed by a ‘make do and mend’ approach that puts reuse, recycling and sustainability at its heart, supported by its small multiskilled team of staff and volunteers. At NESM surplus handcuffs become exhibition barriers, duplicate helmets become light fittings and old lockers become display cases. Cost saving methods like this not only save money, but reduce waste and give new life to old or unused items. In this way, the museum can do a lot with very little.
Although NESM has had much to celebrate in recent years, the team know there is no time to rest on their laurels and there are still challenges to face. As an independent museum, financial pressures are unabating and the cost of living crisis is still looming large for many organisations. It’s historic home, though an asset, requires significant maintenance and it continues to face issues with securing a permanent off-site store for its fleet of vehicles.
It is also battling against its own history, with the shadow of decades as an amateur, enthusiast led museum proving particularly difficult to shake. Matthew Wakefield, the museum’s CEO, said, “There are still people who knew the museum of old and think that it how we still operate. If they come to see us now they are always, without exception, surprised and impressed with what we have done and how completely different we are as a museum. But getting them to take us seriously, and to give us their time, is something that we still fight against more than we should have to.
“This is something that has changed a little in recent years, and our Kids in Museums award has helped tremendously in putting us on the radar. But we still come up against these barriers more than we should. Just as we hear “I’d never even heard of you!” much more regularly than we would like. That’s the next hurdle for us to tackle.”
The challenges will continue for NESM. But the small team, who have taken the museum so far in the last decade, are determined keep moving onwards and upwards.
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