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  • Patrick Coleman

Back to NESM: a returner's view

In the three years that I've been a volunteer at NESM the museum has been utterly transformed, and 2021 has witnessed the biggest changes yet. New galleries, new exhibits, new archive spaces, and even a new lift! It’s all a bit much for one locked-down volunteer who missed out on the transformation…


When I walked back into NESM this month for the first time since September, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. During the long months of lockdown I had heard reports of frantic work going on behind the scenes. I’d caught vague whispers about old display cases being tossed into skips. I’d seen staff appear on Zoom meetings with suspicious smears of paint on their faces, and I’d even heard a rumour that an entire wall on the first floor (a wall I had known very well, and come to respect) had disappeared, was gone completely, as if it had never been!


As someone who generally dislikes change all this gossip left me distinctly uneasy about returning to the museum, which I finally did the week before NESM reopened on 19 May. Yet I need not have worried. The rumours were true, the museum has transformed, but I wasn’t in the least fazed because the results are truly fantastic!


The new exhibition 'Daring Detectives & Dastardly Deeds' has been previewed on this blog and in the press at length, so I won’t say too much about how incredible it is: interactive, informative, surprising, and with some unique police items on display for the first time in their history. Instead I’ll reflect a little on the massive improvements that I have seen, not just in 2021, but since I started at NESM just over three years ago.

Thinking back to my first visit in May 2018 I remember NESM as a very different place. I walked through the doors to be greeted by our Curator, Holly Roberts, who was going to talk to me about volunteering opportunities with the collections team. After our chat in the coffee shop Holly offered to give me a tour of the museum, and I set out to explore what the place had to offer.


On that first stroll around NESM, one word kept coming to mind: 'potential'. The museum was great but it could have been so much more. Holly explained her long-term plans to improve the displays and exhibitions and, if I’m honest, I thought she had her work cut out for her. The Victorian building clearly had an incredible atmosphere, the sort that has an instant effect on anybody interested in history, full of charm and character. But many of the displays inside it were in need of modernising and redesign if they were to do justice to the grand old emergency services station. True, the galleries were crammed full of fascinating objects and stunning vehicles (I remember having a child-like reaction to the fire engines, ambulances and armoured police trucks, though I did my best to hide it; I only said 'vroom, vroom' when I was sure Holly was out of earshot). But the contents of the galleries were not displayed in a way that easily told the story of these vital services and their heroic workers.


Holly told me that she was about to begin a redesign of the cobbled yard area, turning it into the main gallery for the museum’s ambulance collection, with the aim of telling the story of the service from its 19th century roots right up to the present day. Looking around the yard as it was that day (a 'jumble' would be a mild description) it seemed like a mammoth undertaking. And for some reason (not sure exactly what came over me) I said I’d like to help!


I’m glad I did. The following five months were hard work but also great fun as we turned the 'jumble' into 'Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights', an exhibition which brings to life everything from a Victorian street with its horse-drawn ambulance to a Cold War era Civil Defence control centre. Finally, you could walk around the cobbled yard and see its contents narrate a history with rhyme and reason.

That was only the beginning. The Coronavirus pandemic has not had many upsides but Team NESM have used the various lockdowns to make sure visitors get a real surprise - and a much-needed treat - when they return. It would be no exaggeration to say that the museum I saw on my own return in May is unrecognisable from the one I saw on my first visit in 2018, and most of the transformation has taken place in the last year. The work that has been done is genuinely astonishing, not only in its scale but in its speed. If you’d asked me how long it would take to do a revamp of the kind that’s taken place in 2020/21, I would have guessed at something around four years. Much of it was in fact done in a mere matter of months, and by a tiny number of staff and volunteers.


Perhaps the biggest visible change is on the first floor. There had already been refurbishment to part of the floor in 2019 when new learning and discovery rooms were created to house our visiting school groups. Now the main display areas have caught up. Any visitor familiar with the old exhibits is sure to be taken aback at the transformation. Not only have the galleries been redecorated in some style, the new exhibition 'Fiery Blaze to Fire Brigades' makes learning about the birth of the fire service much more fun and interactive. There is still work going on this floor to create 'For King and Country', another new exhibit due to open later this year (and where that wall I was so fond of used to be).

On the second floor there has been similar activity. Not all of it is visible to visitors as it includes our archives and stores, though you can get a peek at the brand-new police archive through its windows at the end of the corridor. The improvement of the archives alone could easily have taken many years to achieve, but somehow (possibly through a form of sorcery) Holly and the maintenance team managed it in months.

If you had a chance to visit in the autumn, in between the lockdowns, you may have seen these alterations already but you will not have seen the transformation on the ground floor where NESM’s carefully preserved Victorian police cells have been reimagined to tell the tale of 19th century crime and punishment. Here you can delve into the history of infamous cases like the Jack the Ripper murders, see our proud new acquisition - the personal papers of the detective who actually led the Ripper investigation - and take the chance to play Sherlock by exploring the world of early forensics.

It really is fantastic to see all that potential I noted back in 2018 being realised. All the new exhibits bowled me over when I walked back into NESM this month and I’m sure they will have a similar effect on visitors. And I suspect we’re not finished yet…

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