Just over two weeks ago, on national Emergency Services Day, we reopened the doors of our museum and welcomed in visitors for the first time in almost six months. It was an exciting day, if a little nerve-wracking; we had no idea if people would feel comfortable visiting us, or whether the changes that we’d made to the museum would impact significantly on visitor experience.
Thankfully, we have had people coming back to see us – albeit in smaller numbers than before – and we’ve already had some lovely feedback. One of our recent visitors said "We thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits and felt reassured by the Covid measures that were in place. My family had a really good experience and we would love to come back again!" Phew!
Reopening our museum was a real achievement because there were times over the last six months when we thought we might not get here. And yet 2020 had started so well for NESM. In fact it looked like being a record-breaking year for us. In January we launched our biggest programme of events to date and in February we celebrated a record half-term week, with more than 1600 visitors through the door in just five days. School groups were booked through to the summer and a season of outreach events, including the lucrative 999 day on The Moor in Sheffield City Centre, was about to begin.
Then the pandemic struck. The impact across the heritage sector as a whole was sudden and substantial, especially for self-funded, independent museums such as ourselves who receive no direct local authority funding, operate on tight financial margins and rarely have large pots of money to fall back on.
When we closed our doors indefinitely on 18 March the income that NESM relies on to survive stopped overnight. Our future was then thrown into serious doubt after we were turned down for, or were unable to access, any emergency coronavirus funding. In May we had to issue a stark warning that without additional help we may have to close our doors for good.
For all of us at #TeamNESM, like everyone working in those sectors that have been particularly impacted by the pandemic, it was a scary and stressful time. We’re a small, close knit team at the museum but the lockdown meant that many of our staff and volunteers had to stay away; either because they were shielding, furloughed or working from home. It was down to a handful of team members to ensure that we continued to care for the historic items in our collection and that we did everything we could to keep the museum going. Simply turning off the lights and walking away was never an option; we were determined to survive.
That we made it to reopening is in no small part thanks to the fantastic response we had from members of the public, local businesses and the local community to our emergency appeal. Donations to the museum gave us a lifeline at the height of the lockdown, providing vital funds to bridge the gap until reopening. Other support has come from local businesses, providing services free of charge or with deferred payments, suspending bills or reducing costs. Without this grassroots support the story could have been very different.
The support and encouragement we got from the public also meant the world to us. We had one donation from a six-year-old boy who decided to give the contents of his piggy bank to our appeal, because he loves the museum and wanted us to keep going. Another youngster hand-delivered a letter telling us how much he enjoyed visiting us and how sad he was that we might close. It was for visitors like them and everyone who loves coming to see us, as well as in honour of the emergency services heroes that we celebrate, that we were absolutely determined that we would open our doors again.
Our status as an independent museum, which often presents us with huge financial challenges, actually benefitted us in some ways during the lockdown, as it gave us the resilience and flexibility to adapt as the pandemic started to bite. We’re used to doing things on a tight budget, often recycling or repurposing items and relying on in-house expertise. It also means that we can make quick decisions. Immediately refocusing our budget, reducing costs where we could, suspending work on new exhibitions and reallocating resources allowed us to maximise the remaining funds we had.
We also took guidance from organisations like Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Museum Development Yorkshire and other consultants. In fact developing a wider network within the heritage sector, including those who did not previously know about NESM, has been one of the positives to emerge from closure.
All this meant that, on Wednesday 9 September, NESM opened its doors to visitors once more. The fact that we are still here is fantastic news for all of us and a reward for the huge amount of work that has gone in to keeping us afloat.
However we know we are nowhere near out of the woods yet. Even as I write, coronavirus cases are on the rise again and we don’t know what that will mean for museums and tourist attractions such as ourselves. Even with our doors open, we know that our visitor numbers will be greatly reduced and our most popular events won’t be able to go ahead. For NESM, as for many others, there are still very tough times ahead. All we know for certain is that we will continue to do our very best to keep our wonderful museum alive.