Loving and losing the small museum – The Museum of Fire, Edinburgh

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Museum of Fire, Edinburgh 2014

I have so many blogs to write, I have got a little behind, but there is a blog nagging at me. It is all I can think about so it is best to get it down now. I remember when these blogs were just for me, it feels like a long time ago now.

I see news of museum closures more and more, Bede’s World is next on the list and Lancashire Council are cutting museums left, right and centre. I force myself not to get too involved, I have not written on museum cuts since my series of posts on the destruction of my local museum in Bromley. For me there is no North-South divide, Bromley in Greater London is not immune to financial pressures. All I see are cuts irrespective of location. 

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Bromley Museum closed 2015

They were personal, difficult blogs to write, there is a little whole in my heart where Bromley Museum used to be. There are just memories there now. It is where my volunteering all began and I still miss it. My whole family does, no more half term and summer fun, no more enjoying the Priory building, no more working with local families.

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Family sessions at Bromley Museum, where do all the families go now?

I met the curator and education officer a few weeks back, both made redundant in the closure. We sat in the splendour of the V&A cafe, we could barely speak of Bromley Museum, too raw, too much sadness there. But for this blog I write not for Bromley but for the Museum of Fire in Edinburgh. A beautiful, small, quirky, volunteer run museum and under threat of closure. Again my heart is breaking.

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We visited Edinburgh in 2013, a big thing for us, the first time the whole family (all five of us) had flown in a plane. It may seem a simple thing to many people but when you have a daughter with autism every new experience is fraught with complications. As ever I was keen to visit as many museums as we could over the few short days we stayed in the heart of the city.

High on my list was the Museum of Fire, I knew my son just three at the time would love it. We finally got there, kids overtired, and husband’s good will at my my museum addiction wearing a little thin, to find it closed. I was feeling a little teary at this point, it had been quite a stressful few days after all, my husband took one look at me and went inside to speak to the lady on the reception desk.

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“Can’t we come back another time?” She asks.

He tells her we are off home early tomorrow, back to London. Then she does a little, precious thing. She has a word with someone, gets the key and lets us in. Completely on our own, no special access because I write a museum blog, just a lady who looked at my kids and thought they could do with a little Museum of Fire magic.

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She probably shouldn’t have done it, she may have even said “Don’t tell anyone”. But she did and I am bloody glad because it was a beautiful, well cared for lovely museum. I am not going to go into much about the displays and building, there are some great blogs by Jenni Fuchs if you want to know more, I couldn’t do the job any better. I have written this blog because what I want to say is that we need museums like this, the small, unusual and quirky. There are so many reasons why, I am not sure where to begin.

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2014-08-27 10.37.17For us, the big museums are often out of reach, too busy, too crowded, too noisy. My daughter struggles, but the small, quiet, and quirky? Well they are perfect. If we keep going the way we are with museum cuts that is all we will have left. The mega museum that has everything, tells you everything. It is overwhelming.

Local museums allow you to make little connections, at the Museum of Fire I was engrossed in the story of James Braidwood, born in Edinburgh and Master of Fire-Engines, at the Edinburgh Fire-Engine Establishment (the world’s first municipal fire brigade), who went on to found the London Fire Engine Establishment and sadly killed by a collapsing wall in the Tooley Street warehouse fire in London in 1861. Tooley Street, somewhere I have walked past a hundred times. Now I know there is a memorial to him there that I am looking forward to seeking out (see below). Little museums making little connections that grow and blossom. We visited the National Museum of Scotland while we stayed in Edinburgh, I loved it but no stories from there stick in my head like the ones from the Museum of Fire.

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Portland Museum, Dorset

There are so many museums like this I could name; the delightful volunteer run Portland Museum, where I learnt all about Marie Stopes, who opened the first birth control clinic but also happened to be the first curator at the museum. When I subsequently came across her at the Wellcome Collection exhibition on Sexology it was a delight to see photographs of her on the beach at Portland. Or the deliciously bonkers Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare where we spent a glorious afternoon ducking under rotor blades and peering into cockpits. It fitted in nicely with my work at the RAF Museum as Blogger-in-Residence.

Our heritage, our history, our quirky collecting natures are being eroded and erased by the need to make financial savings, to economise, to pare down and re-shape. The Museum of Fire in Edinburgh is housed in the engine room and stables of an original fire station, with fireman’s pole, high tiled walls and large entrance doors. It makes sense, it makes total sense to have the collection there, it makes history come alive, you can live it and breathe it everywhere you turn. You can smell it and feel it. A new museum is promised, somewhere at some date. This all sounds very familiar to me. What happens to the passionate volunteers who work so hard to keep that history alive in the meantime? They drift away, as museums sit in storage and plans drag on and never see the light of day.

There is a new series featured on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sundays (you can listen to it here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0713nvs 50mins in to the programme), it is called “In Praise of Small Museums”. The first, by Melvyn Bragg, is a celebration of Bede’s World. We could all say a few words like this, an homage to that small little treasure trove we found on holiday, or write a blog like this on a favourite local haunt. That moment when you stumble across a strange little building housing little stories that we mustn’t forget, or seek out a hidden gem you have been wanting to visit for what feels like an eternity. Do we want to deprive future generations of that joy?

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Who doesn’t want to visit the Steam Museum on the Isle of Wight?

Where will museums be in the future without those feeder museums where a career is started and a passion ignited. When I began my volunteer career I read a Museum Association piece that said “go and volunteer in your local museum, they need you the most”. So I did, and look what I have done since then. Now Bromley is no more I can’t help thinking where will the new generation of “me” go? Will they all apply to a big museum? Apply to the British Museum, along with hundreds of others, get turned down and give up? Will there be any other choice or option?

 

We shall be the poorer for the loss of the small museum – staff and visitors. I look at my kids, one collects ponies, large and small, mainly plastic and furry, not real ones thank goodness. I remember when my other daughter collected Moshi Monsters, I constantly find them around the house, General Fuzuki and Lady Goo Goo. It is in our nature to collect, to keep and to share. It is what we do and yet we seem content to let our story houses, our heritage and history slip away. Contents sold, split and collections lost.

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My daughter’s Moshi Monsters even ended up in a display at Bromley Museum on children’s toys

I hope you will support and share the Museum of Fire’s campaign to keep that precious history alive in a building where much of it was born. It is a history bound up with so much sacrifice it would be criminal to lose it. You may not have visited, but you will know the kind of place it is. Utterly unique, kept alive with volunteer passion. You may want to visit yourself one day, you might turn up to find it closed permanently with no kind lady to find you the key.

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This blog is a thank you to that lady, sometimes it just takes one person to make a difference, sometimes it needs a whole lot. So help make a stand for the Museum of Fire, because next time it might be your favourite small museum that is in line for the axe and you are going to need all the help you can get to keep that precious thing alive.

To support the Museum of Fire please follow the link and sign the petition – https://www.change.org/p/chief-officer-alasdair-hay-and-fiona-hyslop-save-the-museum-of-fire-edinburgh

Finally tracked down the memorial to James Braidwood in Tooley Street London –

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