Updated: May 26
Sound the horns! Wave the flags! Sprinkle the confetti! Pop the corks! We're back! Yes, after another six month coronavirus closure we were finally able to open our doors to visitors again this week. And, just as importantly, we could all have a lie down....
OK, so we're not sleeping on the job. Of course we're not, we're professionals! But it's true that all of us at team NESM have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks to make sure that we're ready to welcome our visitors back. And we're so excited to finally be able to show off all the changes we've made while we've been closed. Because the reopened NESM is almost like a new NESM.
The museum has been closed for 12 months out of the last 14 and, like many other businesses and organisations, it's been a challenging and, at times, a very scary year. This is especially true for independent, self-funded museums such as ourselves, who rely almost entirely on ticket sales and events to keep running. The first six months were a battle to survive but, thanks to the amazing support of the local community and some funding we received last autumn, this year we've been able to look forward with more positivity.
But it's also been a strange rollercoaster where, among the sleepless nights and crunching of every last penny, we've had the chance to make some major changes to the museum which we couldn't have done if we had been open. So out of all that worry and hard work has come an even bigger and better NESM than the one people knew before COVID.
So what new and exciting things can our visitors expect to see in the new-look NESM, I hear you cry? I'm glad you asked...
The star attraction is a brand new exhibition, 'Daring Detectives & Dastardly Deeds', housed in our original and now refurbished Victorian cells. This new exhibition has been 18 months in the planning (FYI don't try and plan a major new exhibition during a global pandemic. Trust us) and takes visitors on a journey through the dark and dangerous streets of 19th century Britain as it tells the story of crime and punishment, from uniformed bobbies on the beat to detectives and the development of forensics.
Visitors will get to know the people behind the history, from the lawmen that patrolled the streets to the poisoners, forgers and murderers that found themselves on the wrong side of the law. There's loads of fascinating objects to see (and a few gruesome ones) that have never been on display at NESM before. You can have a go at solving a crime using Victorian forensic techniques, experience life as a Victorian prisoner and even dress up as a detective, a police officer or a criminal!
The exhibition showcases more than 60 original objects including a genuine death mask, tools of the detective's trade, uniforms and some rare, original documents. The star exhibits are from our newly-acquired collection, the Donald Sutherland Swanson archive. Swanson was the detective in charge of the infamous Jack the Ripper investigation and, among the personal objects on display in the new exhibition is a book that became known as 'the Swanson marginalia', in which he names the person he believed to be the infamous Whitechapel murderer.
Another major exhibition, 'Fiery Blaze to Fire Brigades', tells the story of the creation of the modern fire brigade. We actually completed this exhibition last summer but, as we were only able to open for eight weeks over the autumn, many of our visitors won't have seen it before so we are still calling it 'new'! Some of our older fire equipment, from pumps to fire buckets to helmets, are on display in this exhibition which has transformed our main display gallery. If you've visited us before and walked into this room to be greeted by a wall of dusty cabinets and not much else, you're in for a very pleasant surprise!
There's been other changes in the rest of the museum too. We've refurbished our engine house and given it a lick of paint, making it feel generally bigger and brighter than before. We've added new cabinets, displaying objects from our collection that weren't previously on display and regular visitors will notice one or two new vehicles have popped up, including a 1959 Ford police car that featured in the ITV drama ‘Heartbeat’.
There have been other improvements which might not be so obvious but are all adding to an even better visitor experience. Better signage around the building helps to tell the story of NESM's historic home (121 years old this year and still going strong!) as well as the many emergency services we celebrate. New doors have replaced the open iron gates, meaning a warmer and quieter ground floor, and the addition of a lift - the first time the museum has had one - together with ramps and widened access will improve accessibility for all visitors.
Regular visitors needn’t worry though; favourite exhibits, like the museum’s 47-foot Tyne Class lifeboat and the Blitz exhibition, with its surviving 1938 Leyland fire engine, are still ready and waiting to be explored.
The fact we've been able to make so many improvements in the last few months is, quite frankly, a bit of a miracle. We’ve been able to do it thanks to grants that have covered the costs of specific bits of work and maintenance, generous donations from companies like Wessex Fire and Rescue - who funded our new lift - and the support of local businesses. Not to mention the amazing work of our in-house team, who can do extraordinary things on the smallest of budgets!
We're all SO proud of the new-look NESM and it was absolutely brilliant on Wednesday to finally open the doors, to show off everything we've been working on and to see visitors back and enjoying themselves. The feedback so far has been absolutely amazing too. I was chatting to a young visitor, Gabriel, and his mum on our opening day. She told me they had regularly driven past the museum while we've been closed just to have a look, and were excited when they saw people buzzing about inside getting everything ready. And Gabriel was so keen to be back, he was one of the very first through the doors this week. It's for people like Gabriel that we have worked so hard to survive.
We know things are still a little uncertain and we're taking absolutely nothing for granted. But seeing people coming back to visit, hearing the amazing comments and feeling all the love (yes, I used the L word) for the museum has made us a very happy little team. So thank you to everyone for your support. Remember we're open Wednesday-Sunday from 10am to 4pm and tickets are on sale at visitnesm.org.uk/booking. In fact, check out our website for all the up to date info about visiting us and what to see when you arrive. See you soon!