Tuesday, 11 October 2011

News - Blazing a new trail (Sheffield)

INSIDE, it’s not unlike like Steptoe’s yard – if Steptoe had had an unhealthy obsession with the emergency services.

Here there’s a Chesterfield fire engine from 1710 sitting next to a couple of 1960s police motorbikes; over there are two uniforms worn by New York City firefighters on September 11 2001; and through that door is a cell crammed with assorted Charlie Peace memorabilia.

On the walls are hundreds of police badges; in cabinets are matchbox models of world fire engines; and out the back, past a 1920s desk sergeant, is a World War Two Anderson shelter.

Welcome to Sheffield’s charming – and charmingly chaotic – Fire and Police Museum, West Bar.

Here, more than 30,000 rotating exhibits are crammed into the 29 rooms and courtyard of what was once the city’s combined police and fire station.

There’s just a couple of issues: since being set up in 1983 the centre has only opened Sundays, and until six months ago had faced falling visitor numbers.

Now, however, bosses have announced a £13.5 million plan to reverse its fortunes and transform it into the National Emergency Services Museum. It would be the first of its kind in the UK.

The five-year proposals would see the grade II* listed building completely restored, and expanded into land at the rear.

And the ball was started rolling yesterday with the museum now opening for six days for the first time in its history.

“We have one of the world’s biggest private collections of emergency service memorabilia here,” says director Matthew Wakefield, the only full time member of staff. “But because this is a volunteer-run charity, we’ve had no means of showing it off as it deserves. We’ve not been able to open during the week or even advertise. We once asked the council for brown road signs and they said we’d have to pay for them.”

The new proposals would change all that.

Trustees decided in April to run a one-off six-month advertising campaign to see if it attracted more visitors.

It did. Numbers shot up from an average of 90 each Sunday to about 400, with people coming from across the north. Among them were representatives from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“It’s a listed building being used sympathetically so we thought they might be interested in what we’re doing,” says Matthew, a 21-year-old former Fire Cadet who had volunteered at the centre for eight years before being appointed director.

Turns out they were.

Matthew again: “They estimate it would cost £13.5 million to rennovate and they say in theory, if we can meet certain criteria, they would look to provide significant funding. Firstly, though, we have to prove the place will work as a six day operation. It’s early days but if we can do that, then I’m sure we’ll make quick progress.”

That attracting people shouldn’t be a problem.

Among the museum’s vast rotating collection – started by retired firefighters who wanted a place to house their private memorabilia – are 42 fire engines, five ambulances and 10 police vehicles. They include Sheffield’s first fire engines from 1884 and a 1960s engine from German twin town Bochum.

“Kids love it,” says Matthew, who previously worked at Magna in Rotherham. “It’s great fun because they can sit in the vehicles but it’s also interesting for adults. It’s educational. It’s amazing there isn’t a combined emergency services museum in the UK already. This would take advantage of that gap. I’m certain it can become a destination venue.”

The museum opens Monday to Friday 10am - 2pm until December 2 and Sundays 11am - 5pm.

A brief history of the museum

1900: The purpose-built combined Police and Fire Station is opened in West Bar in the city centre. It’s state-of-the-art facilities include a police camera and stables for the horses which pull the fire engines.
1929: The fire service moves to a new base in Rockingham Street.
1965: The police move to a new base, also West Bar.
1980: The derelict building is acquired by the South Yorkshire Historical Society to house firefighting memorabilia being stored at Rockingham Street.
1983: The museum opens one Sunday a month in just two rooms of the building.
2011: Two rooms have grown to 29. More than 30,000 exhibits, including 57 historic vehicles, are displayed on a rotational basis. It opens for six days a week for the first time.
2016(?): The museum is renamed the National Emergency Services Museum after a £13.5 million expansion and upgrade...

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