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When the past meets the future

There’s lots of reasons why we love being on the road with the collection. Whether it’s living up to our national museum name by making our collection as nationally accessible as possible, or showcasing emergency services heritage alongside future developments, getting out and about is really important.

Just last week we were yet again privileged to attend the Emergency Services Show at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham. After the ups and downs we have all been through this past two years it is fantastic to get back to some sort of normal and see people face to face once again. The Emergency Services Show is actually a trade show, showcasing what the emergency services are doing today, today's equipment and vehicles, learning new ways of working through networking and coming face to face with our future.

It’s vital for museums to be showcased at these events and conferences, as if something is not preserved once it has finished its operational life then today's methods and technology will simply be gone. Then what happens in 50 years when we want to look back? Just take a look at some of our nearly 300 year old parish fire pumps. If these were not saved and cared for then we would not today have great examples on public display of some of the first ever fire engines.

This year we attended the event with a 1960s Bedford ambulance, 1960s police bike, 1930s Leyland fire engine and a selection of historical items relating to HM Coastguard as we embark on a joint project with them to celebrate their 200th anniversary.

Due to the distance from Sheffield to Birmingham the 1930s Leyland Cub fire engine was taken to the event by a transporter and as ever, heads turn and people pause work as we fire it up, drive it off the transporter and into the NEC. This year our stand was directly next to Rosenbauer and their all new fully electric fire engine.

Rosenbauer, is an Austrian company with its UK branch being located right here in Yorkshire. Specialising in specialist fire engines such as aviation and aerial fire appliances to helmets, thermal imaging cameras and, showcasing this year, its all new electric fire engine.

Our 1930s Leyland Cub has a thirsty petrol engine and not really that quiet. Driving past a brand new fire appliance of the future that is fully electric with no engine noise was, let's say, different. But is everything new actually new?

It’s fantastic seeing these new machines and seeing how technology is changing, but it actually causes an issue for museums going forward. Brass fire helmets were used for over 100 years in the 1800s right through to the mid 1900s in some places. So keeping an example of this is easy but in the past say 10 years, we must have seen at least 30 different styles and makes of fire helmets coming on to the market. Planning for the future of collecting is going to be hard and, in one way, an impossible task without support and large storage facilities. We don’t want history to be lost but it might well be without support.

Museums tell the story of yesterday, today and tomorrow so keeping up with what’s new, what’s happening right now and what the future of the emergency services looks like is vital. The big question here is… are we going forward… or are we simply reinventing the wheel?

An electric fire engine, for example. It’s not actually new; we are about 100 years late to the party with this invention. In the early 1900s fire engine manufacturer Merryweather invented the ‘Improved Electric Fire Engine’ powered fully by… yes… electricity! Again, this was not even the first electric fire engine as small corridor fire pumps were fitted with electric pumps, meaning they could be easily operated by one person as the electric pump would replace the need for manually pumping the fire engine.

As we say above, you need to save today or it will not be here tomorrow. Sadly none of Merryweather’s new Improved Electric Fire Engines have survived, so a major step forward in history is gone. Why were these so short lived though? Not many people had electricity at the time so was this the main cause for their short lifespan? Or was it down to the love of steam power? After all steam powered fire engines were the next best thing at the time - but a steam driven fire engine again had a short lifespan and none of these exist today either.

The main reason for steam driven fire engines not becoming the next big thing was down to the development of technology and the rapid use of the motorised fire engine using petrol engines just like our 1930s Leyland. Was the idea of an electric fire engine overlooked? Has it taken us 100 years to find this out? There’s lots of questions to ask and we can not wait to see electric vehicles coming into operation. Will we see one of them in 30 years' time going into the museum's collection? Will we finally have an electric fire engine preserved for future generations? And what’s the next step after electric? A lot of developments flop but if you don’t try we will never move forward.

So that’s a look at new old technology. But what is going to happen to our heritage over the next 20 years as developments and new technology continue to be created? You want to be remembered and known for the changes you have made to the emergency services and without museums this will not be easy.

We all know and see it in the news that the emergency services are not flush with spare cash and funds are always focused (and rightfully so) on front line services. So where’s the money coming from to save our heritage and educate in the future? NESM is a fully self funded, independent, national museum and charity and raises most of its funds through entrance fees, events, donations and sponsorships. Over the past five years we have seen historic collections disappear or boxed up and museums closed, and nearly all of them have and are contacting us for help.

Pre-Covid NESM was seeing a good flow of around 30,000 visitors per year to the our museum with a yearly increase of around 30% as we continued to expand and develop the historic site the museum is housed in.

Yes, we have an off-site store like many other museums do, but this is only temporary as we locate a permanent and large enough site. Have you seen the size of a fire engine these days? They take up so much room and our stores are already full! Our future plans are for our stores to not be hidden away but an open collections and discovery centre, research facility, restoration centre and event space in addition to the main museum. To do this we need support from the private sector.

If you want to find out more about the museum, our future plans or discover the history of the emergency services visit or keep following these blogs as we continue to tell our story.

Thank you to everyone who helps and has helped the museum over the years and, most importantly, over this past two years. Without your support we would not be here at all.

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