2020 got off to a flying start for NESM. We had a full calendar and plan of action for the year with new events, completely refurbished exhibitions in the pipeline and a vast amount of meetings with other museums, attractions, businesses and councils, all leading towards an exciting future for the museum as we move forward into our 90th year.
January saw the first trustees' meeting of the year where plans and developments were agreed, including investments by the charity such as the full refurbishment of the building's Victorian police cells and the installation of a lift, made possible thanks to generous donations.
A lift is vital to our future and will expand the museum's offering to a much wider audience who for the first time will be able to access even more of this historic site and museum. The order for a purpose built lift, specially designed to fit within the building without making alterations to its heritage, was duly confirmed and a welcome donation from South Yorkshire Police towards the work in the Victorian cells meant the museum's first two big projects of the year could commence.
They say times flies when you’re having fun and before we knew it, it was February and the final planning and organisation for our first event, Arms and Armour, was well underway. Armed police, military personnel and armoured animals were welcomed to NESM to allow the museum to showcase how armour and protection has been used over the year both in the human and animal world.
December 2019 through to early March 2020 saw rising visitor numbers (doubled in some cases) compared to previous years. Over the previous year the museum had slightly rebranded and completely overhauled our website and marketing, showcasing the museum to those who may never have hear about us before. We still believe that we are one of the area’s best kept secrets, as many of our new visitors tell us themselves!
With an amazing start to 2020 the team here at NESM were also ready to push forward with our learning programme, and school visits were almost booked up between January and April.
It was in mid-March that we started to feel the first impact of coronavirus; something that was of course about to play a large part of our lives going forward.
It began for us with cancelled school groups, outreach visits, and internal and external events. The writing was on the wall and what was happening across the country made us seriously think about our survival and what would come next. Discussions began within our team about how museums and shops were starting to temporarily close due to this virus, whether we can we afford to close and how long will this be for. By the end of the day on Wednesday 18 March 2020 we made the tough decision to close temporarily. This was swiftly followed by announcements from the Government that the UK would go into a national lockdown and nearly everything was closed.
As with many other museums, shops, cafes, pubs, etc, we’ve told our stories around how the first lockdown hit us hard. With a heavy heart, gritted teeth and determination we made plans for our survival. Exciting projects fell by the wayside, aside from some building alterations that had just not been possible to do while we were open to visitors.
By early May, funds already raised or granted directly for some projects had to be redirected to our survival and our board had to make the announcement that the charity would not make it past June without financial support. Sadly, it seemed we were falling through the cracks of all support being offered.
This was an awful time for us but thanks to the great British public donating to our emergency appeal - even children posting pocket money and letters through the museum's post box - we were able to survive past June but we knew additional support would be vital to our survival long term.
In addition to financial donations, a local decorating shop, local plasterer, electrician, builder and existing museum volunteers came together to offer support in kind so we could continue to maintain the museum while it was closed. With this support during the months of May to August the museum's team was able to fully refurbish one of the large exhibition halls on the first floor and the main building staircase, including the installation of a missing fire pole and the restoration of some of the building's original features that have previously been hidden over the years.
During the first national lockdown both myself and the museum’s curator utilised the time to revitalise and reconfigure a large section of the museum’s collection stores. This involved nearly every object being relocated and some existing objects on display changing. This task was planned to originally take three years to complete alongside normal workloads but the closure allowed for a direct focus on this task alone. A lot of work is always being done behind the scenes in a museum to care for the collection and this reshuffle has allowed for ‘viewing windows’ to be created into some of the museum's stores, allowing visitors to see into the stores to discover more of the collection, why we collect and how we tell the story.
The museum re-opened in September at 9am on the ninth day of the ninth month (National 999 day). Restrictions such as one-way systems were in place and some of the museum's normal well-loved dress-up uniforms and interactives were temporarily removed. We were nervous about how this would impact on the visitor experience but comments were positive and the changes did not put a downer on a visit to NESM! The museum was in full swing and back open to visitors but, with the rise of Covid cases across the country, a second national lockdown and further restrictions were put into place in November - and we've been closed ever since.
Here at NESM, we don’t let anything get us down and will always bounce back when knocked down. With a new period of closure for museums and the great addition of a successful grant from the Governments Cultural Recovery Fund of £103,400 the decision was made to remain closed until early 2021and bring forward some planned developments. Bringing forward the installation of the lift and restoration/repair works to the Victorian engine house will allow for a full fresh start once the museum in a position to reopen once more. These new additions will truly open up the museum to a much wider audience and make the museum more accessible to visitors of all ages, allowing us to better showcase the collection and create new interpretation telling the story of our objects and the emergency services.
Thanks to a few grants and donations towards the end of 2020 the museum's team has been able to fully refurbish some visitor facilities including toilets, museum entrance, gift shop and coffee shop. The major refurbishment project in the cells and our new policing and crime exhibition, which began just before the first lockdown back in March 2020, is also well on the way to finally being completed. This new exhibition includes objects from major crime cases in the UK and will for the first time see this story being told in an interactive, immersive exhibition housed within the 120 year old rooms.
In some ways this past year has been horrifying and as a charity has been extremely financially draining but on the other hand has given our team the chance to bring a new look NESM to 2021! New exhibitions, new facilities, new exhibits and a new exciting future means we cannot wait to welcome visitors back. On behalf of all the team of staff, volunteers and trustees of the museum, I would like to say a massive THANK YOU as without the support and backing of the general public, local companies and funding through recent government support grants our future could have been very different. Hopefully the welcoming of a new look National Emergency Services Museum is something to look forward to. for 2021!
Matt Wakefield, CEO.