Uniformly good times at museum that’s more arresting

Fire and Police Museum, West Bar, Sheffield 22 yrs old Matthew Wakefield volunteering at the museum since he was 13 yrs seen with a East German Police Trabant See Story  Paul Whitehouse    Picture Chris Lawton   '08 November  2012
Fire and Police Museum, West Bar, Sheffield 22 yrs old Matthew Wakefield volunteering at the museum since he was 13 yrs seen with a East German Police Trabant See Story Paul Whitehouse Picture Chris Lawton '08 November 2012
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LESS than two years ago it was a real possibility that Sheffield’s Fire and Police Museum 
could have folded after operating for more than a quarter of a century.

Its volunteer workforce met to decide the future of the little-known attraction, housed in a Victorian former police and fire station at West Bar on the edge of the city centre.

But instead of closing, and with a shake-up of those involved, they set about a radical plan to transform themselves into a nationally important centre to record the work of the emergency services.

That was in the summer of last year and the transformation already appears to have worked, with visitor numbers spiralling to more than 19,000 for the first ten months of 2012, compared to little more than 4,000 for the same months last year.

Numbers of exhibits have increased to the point where less than half the museum’s collection of vehicles can now be displayed on site.

Their fleet of 18 in June last year now stands at 88, with 42 on public display and the rest held in storage at premises in Doncaster.

What makes the transformation more remarkable is that the museum is entirely self funded, rather than relying on grants from outside bodies for its survival.

The secret of success has been to work with the private sector, promote the site for educational work and increase opening times from the old Sundays and bank holidays regime to capitalise on school holidays.

Organisers introduced annual tickets to test whether there was an appetite for return visits and the response has been positive enough to give museum officials the confidence they have a long-term future.

They are now planning to extend the museum, to retain 
the historic Victorian building, which includes police cells and an observation tower from which 
the city was scanned for 
incidents in the days before telephones were available, but to create a modern rear extension to take more of the vehicle fleet and other exhibits.

Negotiations are ongoing with one sponsor from the fire industry to acquire land adjacent to the museum, with officials seeking another to help with the building.

Spokesman Matthew 
Wakefield, who at 22 has 
been a volunteer since the age 
of 13, explained: “We would 
never want to lose the original building, but would like to expand around what we already have.

“Hopefully, we will be able to bring a lot more onto the site and it will become South Yorkshire’s first national museum, which would be a major asset for Sheffield.”

The museum’s catalogue of exhibits have expanded so quickly partly because of pressure on other organisations from funding cuts. Some with small collections, or single vehicles, have offered them because spending restrictions meant they could no longer justify keeping them.

Several brigades nationally are facing difficult questions over the museums they have been able to fund internally in the past.

Sheffield’s has no such difficulties because it has always been independent. The fire museum opened in 1983 and expanded to take in policing a decade later and while it has the support of the emergency services in donating exhibits, they make no contribution to its running costs.

A recent dalliance with obtaining a grant to help pay for education workers failed, so the museum looked to the private route instead.

It now charges £3.50 per pupil for a visit of more than four hours and has gone from a couple of bookings a month to almost daily school visits.

An ambition, however, is to secure enough private backing to either slash that charge or remove it entirely.

“When we couldn’t get funding we took it into our own hands and started contacting schools to see if they were willing to pay,” he said.

“It took off and we are now full of schools, Monday to Friday. We are very, very busy. Between now and Christmas we have something happening every day.”

Plans for a museum extension were first explored in 2009 but were shelved as impractical. The museum’s expansion means they are now being revisited an appear a real possibility for the future.

“We have our vision and we would like to do this,” said Mr Wakefield.

“When this first came up we were struggling to stay alive. Now those plans have been brought back out and this time they really could happen,” he said.