Sheffield-based National Emergency Services Museum to reopen its doors
For Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum, 2020 looked set to be a record year.
In January, it launched its biggest programme of events to date and in February it celebrated a record half-term week, with more than 1,600 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, was about to begin.
Then the pandemic struck.
The impact across the heritage sector was sudden and substantial, especially for self-funded, independent museums such as NESM, which receive no direct local authority funding, operate on tight financial margins and rarely have large pots of money to fall back on.
When the museum closed its doors indefinitely on March 18, the income NESM relies on to survive stopped overnight.
Its future was then thrown into serious doubt after it was turned down for, or was unable to access, any emergency coronavirus funding.
In May, it issued a stark warning that without additional help it may have to close its doors for good.
An urgent appeal was launched and, after a fantastic response from businesses and the local community, NESM was able to raise vital funds to help towards its survival.
Now, at last, the museum is preparing to welcome visitors once more.
NESM will reopen its doors on Wednesday, September 9, at 9am – 9am on 9/9, national 999 day – after a closure of almost six months.
Matthew Wakefield, museum chief executive officer, says: “Some people said we should just lock up the museum and leave it until we could reopen, but we aren’t just a visitor attraction, we are the guardians of a collection of emergency services history and we have a duty to care for those objects.
“Simply turning off the lights and walking away was never an option.”
Although NESM’s status as an independent museum brought huge financial challenges, it also gave it the resilience and flexibility to adapt as the pandemic started to bite.
Mr Wakefield says: “Being a self-funded museum means we are used to doing things on a tight budget, often recycling or repurposing items and relying on in-house expertise.
“It also means 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.”
The museum has also taken 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.
Mr Wakefield says: “Having time to build these networks has been extremely helpful, as I don’t think we would have resolved some of the issues we have had without this support.”
More than anything, however, the museum has benefitted from the support and generosity of the local community.
Donations to the museum gave NESM 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.
Mr Wakefield says: “The response from the local community and the emergency services community has been amazing and has shown just how much the museum means to so many people.
“It’s one of the reasons we were so determined not to let NESM disappear for good.
“It’s been a very difficult and worrying time for us, but the fact that we are still here, and can plan for reopening, is fantastic news for all of us and a reward for the huge amount of work that has gone in to keeping us afloat.
“We know we are not out of the woods yet, but the issues we have faced in the last six months,and the changes we have made to increase our resilience, have put us in a much better position to tackle our next challenges; getting visitors back, staying Covid-safe and bringing in more income.”
For more information go to visitnesm.org.uk