Author(s): Lisa Braxton. Published on September 1, 2015.

Nine years ago, when Jamie Smith Quinn became the new executive director of the FASNY Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, New York, she knew she’d never have a shortage of projects to take on.

She was assuming the directorship of an institution that had a massive amount of material with little organization. “It resembled a warehouse,” she told me during a recent visit to her office. “Truck after truck after fire truck, stacks of badges in display cases, artifacts identified only by small index cards typed in the 1970s, storage rooms filled to the brim with cardboard boxes of artifacts. Some items had never been documented.”

Adding to the challenge was the fact that the museum, which had been around since 1925, didn’t have a clearly defined mission.

“It was about firefighting in general,” Quinn said. “People would come from England and Germany and give things to us.”

Traditionally, the roughly 350 fire museums in the United States and Canada have been operated by firefighters and fire buffs without museum backgrounds. The museums paid tribute to the past, often to an audience made up primarily of firefighters. That was largely the case with the FASNY museum—FASNY stands for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York—which, prior to Quinn’s arrival, was operated by two full-time staffers and a part-timer. Retired firefighters living at the FASNY Firemen’s Home next door served as volunteers, polishing the old equipment and giving occasional tours. But that’s all changing. In recent years, fire museums around the country have undergone a dramatic transformation, moving from a static presentation of historic artifacts to a more dynamic, hands-on, family-focused approach. Quinn and others espouse a new approach to engaging kids and families in the educational opportunities offered by fire museums: get them in the door and present them with a very different museum experience, one that values entertainment as much as education.

D. Lynn McRainey, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Director of Education at the Chicago History Museum and co-editor of the book Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, says all types of museums, fire museums included, are taking their audiences into account by offering children multi-sensory learning experiences.

“One-size-fits-all is no longer an option for program design—we are all complex individuals with different needs, abilities, and interests,” she said. “It’s important that museums invite visitors to learn in the way that they’re most comfortable.”

What change looks like

The museum-experience revolution has been driven by an assortment of factors, including the recognition that museums can act as economic engines, providing jobs and contributing financially to local economies. According to the American Alliance of Museums, an organization that develops standards and best practices for the museum community, museums in the United States employ more than 400,000 people and directly contribute $21 billion to the U.S. economy annually, and billions more through indirect spending by their visitors.

Change has also been spurred by a societal shift in the parent/child dynamic. “Parents used to be the driving force behind planning their children’s activities,” said Quinn. “Back in my day, my parents would say, ‘You’re going here,’ and I didn’t dare say no. Nowadays parents are more likely to go where the children want to go. For museums, if you don’t offer anything that’s entertaining as well as educational, children will not want to come, so parents aren’t going to bring them.”

I dig history interact_opt
Children looking at one of FASNY's interactive features. Photograph: FASNY Museum of Firefighting

old case photo_CC_CMYK_opt

The old FASNY museum with numerous artifacts but little interpretive information. Photograph: FASNY Museum of Firefighting

last orientation exhib_opt

A new FASNY display with more information for visitors. Photograph: FASNY Museum of Firefighting

Another impetus is the decline in attendance at historic houses, which the museum industry has watched closely. “People don’t want to peer into a room that’s roped off or just read a panel with writing on it,” Quinn said. “Children, especially, don’t want long-winded speeches or tours.”

David Lewis agrees. Lewis is curator at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum in Aurora, Illinois, which has adopted an interactive approach similar to the one developed by the FASNY museum. “Museums used to be dusty-musty places to see old stuff in glass cases and behind velvet ropes,” Lewis said. “Today they are important non-traditional educational institutions. They’re about stories, ideas, values, and concepts, and how those ideas relate to the present and future.”

Fire museums are taking note. Like their counterparts in the broader museum world, fire museums now hold focus groups in an effort to maintain their relevance and respond to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Among the focus group findings is that visitors want to be immersed in the firefighter experience. In response, fire museums have begun hiring museum executives, archivists, and curators to complement the expertise of the fire service staff and volunteers. Artifacts are now being catalogued using database software and taken out of exhibits periodically to rest in archival-quality storage containers. Membership programs are being launched and grants pursued.

Fire Museum Resources
The Fire Museum Network

The website of this coalition of firefighting museums includes a variety of resources, including a section titled “How To Start A Fire Museum.” The organization sponsors a three-day annual seminar where fire museum operators exchange ideas and learn about fire service history, museum procedures, fundraising, budgeting, and hiring practices. In recent years, participants have attended workshops on “Using Your Fire Museum to Teach STEM,” “Don’t Miss Out: Record Oral History,” and “Adding Motion and Interest to Your Safety Displays.”

The American Alliance of Museums

This nonprofit association seeks to strengthen museums in the U.S. through leadership, advocacy, collaboration, and service. The organization supports 21,000 museums, individuals, and companies by developing standards and best practices, providing resources and career development, and advocating for museums to thrive. It offers a number of online programs and webinars and hosts an annual three-day meeting and expo, which includes idea sessions, technology tutorials, and an open house at museums near the convention site.

A decade ago, the FASNY museum was taking preliminary steps toward modernizing, and the results were encouraging. To move forward more quickly, the museum’s board hired Quinn as development officer in 2005, in charge of developing membership, events, and programming. She was named executive director the following year and continued to take small steps toward creating a more interactive museum. A key step in planning the museum’s future was to hold a focus group and ask the public what it wanted the museum to be. “People told us they wanted it to be more interactive, which supported the direction the board wanted to go,” Quinn said. “Our strategic plan really began in 2010.”

Since then, the museum has mounted a more ambitious push toward interactivity, seeking larger grants and sponsorships for ever-larger interactive projects. The museum clarified its mission—a tight focus on the long and colorful history of the volunteer fire service in New York State—and organized its collection accordingly. Some pieces were offered back to donors, given to other organizations, or sold.

These days the FASNY Museum bears little resemblance to its previous incarnation. Against the backdrop of brightly painted walls, professionally designed exhibits feature bold signage and dramatic historical illustrations; five of the museum’s six exhibits are interactive in some way. There’s still plenty of old stuff—early firefighting uniforms and vintage apparatus, including an 1860s steam engine that appeared in the film The Road to Wellville—but its significance is illuminated not by labels but by graphic text boxes that provide clear interpretation.

The old is complemented by the new, such as the “Junior Firefighter Challenge,” a hands-on firefighting learning center for kids ages 3 to 10 that was installed last year at a cost of $100,000. A few steps away, tables are set up in the Fire Safety and Prevention Discovery Room for crafts, games, puzzles, and interactive stations that reinforce fire safety behaviors. According to Quinn, attendance last year was 36,600—with an additional 3,000 involved in the museum’s distance learning programs—compared to just over 8,000 in 2005. The 2015 operating budget is $697,000—not including grant funding that’s typically around $100,000 per year—compared to $460,500 in 2005, Quinn said. Museum staff currently includes five full-time employees and 10 part-timers.

That kind of change has not happened without resistance, Quinn said. “We used to have everything out—100 badges, 100 helmets, that sort of thing. When we started to cut that back—five badges, say, or five helmets—we definitely encountered resistance from some people involved with the museum. But how can 100 items tell the story better than five? There’s much less resistance now—people have seen the value of devoting this space to exhibits that let you actually do something instead of just listening or reading.”

Robert McConville, FASNY president and a veteran Suffolk County fire official in New York, applauds the transformation. “Years ago I would come in and look at the old fire trucks and think it was nice, but it was just equipment on display—nobody was there to tell you what the truck was about,” he said. “Now that it’s an educational institution we get a lot more visitors each year. Schoolchildren come in almost daily. We certainly needed a museum professional who knows how to do this kind of work.”

Fire safety education opportunity

At a time when many fire departments are cutting back on their public education programs and staffing because of budget constraints, fire museums are also emerging as valuable educational tools, weaving fire safety education into the museum experience.

“We have a mission to educate a diverse public about the history of firefighting,” said Quinn, who was recognized by the Museum Association of the State of New York this year with an outstanding individual achievement award of merit. Her experience comes from on-the-job training in volunteer and paid museum positions and with the help of mentors. “That’s really our goal, with the caveat that we focus on fire prevention and safety.”

According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums across the country are invested in education, devoting significant portions of their operating budgets to curriculum for grades K–12. Aligning museum programming to state educational learning standards is at the forefront of this effort.


The original FASNY Museum building, which has been expanded with additions over the years. Photograph: Kayla Rice

At The Fire Museum of Maryland, near Baltimore, museum director and curator Stephen Heaver said programs meet common core curriculum standards in social studies. “The standards keep our programs compatible with the goals of teachers,” he said. “Teachers use us to reinforce their curricula. Otherwise we merely become a field trip for fun.” He and the museum educator sift through the state standards and look for themes they can develop to provide a topical bridge to what’s being taught in classrooms. Then museum staff, along with a committee of teachers established by the museum, exchange ideas on potential educational materials. Once a draft is completed, classes are brought to the museum for a test run.

David Lewis said the Aurora Regional Fire Museum has modified its programs to meet Illinois’ common core standards and recently formed a partnership with two local universities to develop an elementary school curriculum based on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—that incorporates fire safety, the fire service, and firefighting practices.

A popular feature of the FASNY museum is the distance learning program, which schools can access through videoconferencing. “Firefighter Fran,” a character played by the museum’s educator, appears on a classroom monitor to teach kids the causes of fire, fire and burn prevention, escape planning, and how to call 911. Quinn says the program meets New York State Learning Standards in scientific inquiry, language arts, and home economics.

At the Chicago History Museum, McRainey says programs are designed using an array of tools, formats, and experiences to reach both children and adults. The museum regularly monitors the interest level of visitors, conducting program surveys, noting changes in attendance rates, and inviting visitors to try out and offer feedback on prototypes of interactive gallery experiences. Change is a constant, she said, and all museums, including fire museums, need to embrace this dynamic approach to programming. “A program can’t live forever,” McRainey said. “New audiences require different program formats and access to content. Program participants seek unique experiences. Audiences change. Interpretation changes. We need to know when to step back from a program to determine if it has run its course.”

Back in Quinn’s office, she told me that she fields calls and receives visits from people across the country addressing a more elementary matter: how to start a fire museum. “The biggest misconception people have is that all they have to do is raise the money, or that if someone donates the building they’ll be all set,” she said. “They need to think about operating costs over multiple years, how to take care of artifacts, and they need to hire at least one museum professional. If they want to have educational programming, they need to hire an educator. It’s expensive, but that’s the way to do it.”

For relatively healthy institutions like FASNY, there’s also the perpetual question of where and how to expand. The FASNY museum occupies about 50,000 square feet, much of it the result of additions to the original building; even with improved organization and a streamlined collection, Quinn said, the museum is still short on space. “We’re growing by leaps and bounds—if I had my way, I’d probably add another 45,000 square feet, including a lot of public space,” she said. And like any museum director worth her salt, Quinn has a fairly detailed timetable for when she’d like to see this all happen: “Tomorrow would be nice.” 

LISA BRAXTON is associate project manager in the Public Education Division at NFPA.