It's now more than two years since I joined #TeamNESM as a learning and discovery co-ordinator but when I first visited the museum it wasn't as a staff member, but as the mother of a sprightly 18 month old who loved nee-naws. (That toddler is now nearly four years old, still sprightly, an older brother to a nine month old and still obsessed with emergency services vehicles).
My main reason for visiting was to see if this was a place I could see myself working, but that was not the only thing I discovered that day. I loved the museum from the moment I stepped through the door not because of what I saw or how I felt, but because I was seeing it through my son’s eyes. We were in a real police, fire and ambulance station with real nee-naws he could sit and play in. His excitement was catching; he hared round, investigating, touching, smelling, listening and even trying to taste (don’t panic, I didn’t let him) everything around him. He embraced it all.
Our family loves a museum but so often we are told - or rather our son is told - don’t touch that, don't do that, you can’t sit there. His face would fall or, quite a lot of the time, he would carry on with a grin on his face and we would have to extract him. Any parents or carers among you will know how that makes you sweat; when someone hones in on your child for doing something that a child would do, but is seen as incredibly bad and dangerous in the adult world. At NESM he had found a place where he was allowed to be a toddler and where the rules were easy to follow (No Rocko the Racoon sticker, no entry). That was a truly special thing.
Then I became one of the museum's learning and discovery co-ordinators and the fun really began.
As you can probably tell, I love my job. Being an ex-teacher I enjoy working with children, enabling them to learn and, let’s face it, having a good time doing it. Along with my colleague Paul, we run workshops and school groups that help children to learn about topics such as People Who Help Us, the Great Fire of London and World War II to name but a few. If the schools can't come to us we can hop in a fire engine, ambulance or police car for an outreach visit, so that the museum can take itself to them and teach them something about the vehicle too. And just imagine the faces of the children as they see a fire engine, police car or ambulance driving up to their school and then discover they get to explore it too!
We also work a lot with the general public during the school holidays, creating activities for children - and some very eager grown ups - to enjoy. Sometimes it's harder to keep the adults in line than the children! In the month before the lockdown in March last year - the last time we were able to hold an event at the museum - we we were doing this at our Arms and Armour weekend, making police riot shields and sharing a room with some medieval knights.
It is hard to choose a favourite part of my job, but I think it's those moments when I walk through our engine house and see one of our younger visitors sitting in our Leyland fire engine or wandering amongst all the vehicles with a huge grin on their face. Having a small chat with them and their parents about their day and what they have enjoyed the most (admittedly it's usually their adults who answer me - wise children not to talk to the strange lady!) it's heartwarming to see their joy is so apparent.
Sadly I have had none of those moments in the last year, apart from when I got a chance to bring my own children in for a fleeting visit in September when NESM was able to open for a short time. Let’s be honest, it has been a hard year for us adults, but even harder for children, missing out on seeing their friends, the adventures they should’ve had and the new experiences that were taken away. Lockdown babies were born (I should know, I had one) and missed out on being held by friends and family, baby and toddler groups became virtual and my baby boy hasn’t even managed to go for his first swim yet.
I think it is because of the lockdown experiences of my own children, I've been thinking a lot about what we can do to make our museum even better for our younger fans when we do reopen.
We know they enjoy a weekday visit, sitting in our fire engines, trying on helmets and uniform, having a rummage in the gift shop (I’d always recommend the £2 lifeboat - we have two at home) and enjoying a delicious treat in our coffee shop (I have a cake obsessed son, but other options are available).
But we want to make sure we are getting this absolutely right, which is why we would love to hear your ideas. What would you like to see from us in what we offer for our younger visitors? Baby and toddler groups? Sensory mornings? Special events just for little ones? We would love to hear your views, so please comment on this blog or contact us through our social media channels.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to explaining to my oldest that “No, Mummy hasn’t fixed all the fire engines yet, so we can’t go to the museum today.” But hopefully someday soon, I can answer with a very loud and happy, “Yes! We’ve fixed it all. Let’s go toddling along to NESM.”
Learning and Discovery Co-ordinator