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Hear Us Now: On Being an Independent Museum


This was the theme of the recent 2022 Australian Museum and Galleries Association Conference held in Perth, Western Australia.

It was great to be able to attend this meeting of Museum-minded people from all types of organisations across the sector. These annual events are always a useful way to assess how we are progressing as an organisation in comparison to the rest of the industry and to learn about ways that we can tackle some of the biggest issues facing our communities.

Attending the AMaGa Conference in Perth, Western Australia.

The Museum of Fire is in a rather unique position as it is one of a very small group of independent Museums with a paid-professional workforce. That is to say, most of our nation’s cultural organisations are operated by various levels of government.

While the Museum of Fire does have an association with Fire and Rescue NSW as the official heritage partner to the organisation, the Museum has always been and remains an independent and private entity governed by a volunteer Board of Directors who do not receive payment or compensation for their time.

Unlike previous years, it seemed that this divide between government and non-government Museums came to the fore during the conference, specifically when it came to the discussion of big-ticket topics such as climate change and the implementation Indigenous Roadmap (to learn more about this please follow this link to the AMaGa Website.

When a museum is managed and operated by a government body with an annual budget it is easier for changes to be enacted, especially if change is mandated at a managerial level across the government body. These decisions further up the management chain can lead to the provision of additional funding to ensure the change is enacted in a timely manner.

If we, as a non-funded independent organisation, want to enact change on a large scale we need to source funding, which more often than not would be in the form of a grant. Grants are time consuming to apply for and with only a small staff this often means other more pressing tasks (such as general day-to-day operations) are compromised while staff direct their attention to applying for grants.

The Firefighters' Memorial Grove in Perth, Western Australia. This commemorates Western Australian firefighters who have been injured or lost their lives in firefighting duties, as well as the service offered to the community by all firefighters.

While many government museums also face this challenge with grant applications and small staff numbers, independent museums have the added burden of no ongoing funding to keep the lights on (i.e. government organisations tend to have at least base funding from their managing body that provides for staff wages). In other words, if we don’t have people coming through the door, we don’t have any way to raise an income and pay staff.

If we are unsuccessful in obtaining a grant than it is most likely that the change will have to be put on the backburner.

Our main aim at the Museum of Fire on a daily basis is to see people come through the door and ensure we have an ongoing income that will enable us to continue our heritage and educational work, in addition to simply keeping the lights on. This focus has the potential to leave our team feeling defeated because we can’t kick as many goals as larger or government-funded organisations, so it was comforting to discover throughout the various keynote presentations and discussions, that we are not alone in this battle, and there are a number of other museums facing these obstacles on a daily basis as well.

As an employee of an independent museum, having these discussions with others across the industry and being able to share ideas and collaborate on future goals are one of the main reasons I find the conference to be fruitful and engaging. These conferences make me realise we, as an organisation, are not alone in our daily struggles and just as others can help us, we too can provide support and a listening ear to other organisations in the same boat.

With all of this in mind, I truly believe that the Museum of Fire team is one of the best in the country. We punch above our weight to create and produce fresh ways to engage with new and old audiences alike. We are not afraid to try something new and we work together with a common goal in mind – to increase visitation and share both fire education and history with the wider community.

Our volunteers play such a clear role within this team, and we wouldn’t be able to undertake many of our projects without them. While I was in Perth, I was delighted to meet some of the volunteers of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Education and Heritage Centre located right in the centre of the city in an old heritage-listed fire station from 1901.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Education and Heritage Centre.

It is great to see that their passion for the projects they are undertaking are similar to our own volunteers and many of these projects are along the same lines as our own. With volunteers helping to catalogue the collection, undertake research and preservation activities as well as maintaining a historic heritage fleet, volunteers are well and truly a necessity to enact the type of projects that help ensure the history of fire services in Australia are maintained for future generations.

With so much in common, our team here in Penrith look forward to collaborating with Michael and his team out there in Perth to modernise our respective exhibits and provide the necessary support to one another.

The Museum of Fire team have a lot of ideas to continue moving forward and to keep encouraging new visitation. We take small steps each day to try and bring about some of that bigger change I noted earlier. One such small change that we have been inspired to enact following the conference is the removal of paper towel from our bathrooms. This was a conscious decision made at the conference and it is an easy way to take a positive step towards decreasing our waste footprint. Having said that, the alternative is hand dryers which are costly, so while we are intending to replace our excessive paper hand towel cost (which became astronomical following the onset of the pandemic) and can justify some expenditure, it’s an ongoing saving to both the Museum and environment and it will be a slow process to equip all bathrooms with this change.

It is a small change but it is change at a basic level and something that Museums, such as ours, can implement inhouse, even if it will take time to fully come to fruition.

A trip to Perth would be incomplete without seeing some quokkas!

Having now talked so much about being independent with non-ongoing external funding it seems timely to note how you can support the Museum. As we approach the EOFY you can make a tax-deductible donation to the Museum, a registered charity, by clicking here.

Also, don’t forget that Dine and Discover ends this week so don’t let your vouchers expire! Consider becoming a member! We offer annual membership for the discounted price of $25 when you use a Discover voucher. Head over to our membership page here.

- Story by Museum of Fire CEO, Belinda McMartin


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