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Reflecting on the year that was 2023

Museum of Fire CEO Belinda McMartin
Museum of Fire CEO Belinda McMartin

In the last twelve months the world has returned to some sort of normalcy, following what seemed like a never-ending series of lockdowns. While this is a good thing, we were unsure how it would impact visitation to the Museum. Despite the difficulties the pandemic created, it also aided in the growth of visitation to the Museum with many families and individuals looking for activities close to home. With the option to now travel further afield we were unsure how this would impact the numbers visiting the Museum and entered 2023 with a small amount of trepidation.

Our fears appear to have been unnecessary though as our monthly visitation figures, especially during school holidays and on weekends (predominantly when we advertise the availability of fire engine rides) continue to be strong and on some occasions far exceed our expectations. 

Just as we began to adapt to this constant higher volume of visitors though, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis began to affect the Museum. Whether it is the day-to-day operational costs of the Museum, increase in third party prices or rising cost of shop products for our retail store we have seen our expenditure grow, due to no fault or desire of our own. For the most part these costs are unavoidable and where we could make cutbacks, we have but there was very little room for change with expenses of essential services the main cost increasing. In response the Board made the hard but necessary decision to increase the price of admission to the Museum, but in doing so we have remained one of the cheapest and most affordable Museum’s for a family day out in Sydney, as we strive to provide a great family experience. 

Museum of Fire Building, 2023
Museum of Fire Building, 2023

To meet needs of growing visitor numbers a restoration project on a second “rides truck” fire engine was undertaken by our volunteers so that we could increase the capacity of fire engine rides available during special events. By making a second truck operational we will also have the ability to take the first one offline for several months to undergo maintenance without impacting the offering of fire engine rides. 

Despite the growing economic concerns of the last twelve months, I can report that a level of stability has now arrived upon the Museum. While our staffing roles and levels have remained almost the same as they were at the start of the year, our Board of Directors have been able to be a stabilising influence on the entire organisation. According to the most recent report by the Australian Government’s, Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), just one in five Australian board’s have gender equality. For this entire reporting period the Museum’s Board has shown the commitment within our organisation to have better representation on our Board which has evolved from comprising of only men when I came into the CEO role in June 2020, to now being completely 50-50 when it comes to gender representation. 

In a year of stability, we have had some changes which can been seen in the Museum exhibits as well as the shop and, in the back-of-house digital management of our files and new accounting systems. While the public don’t see these behind-the-scenes changes, they have made a big impact on the productivity of our staff and volunteers. 

Museum of Fire Volunteers posing in front of the Commer which received a Heritage Trust Award Nomination, 2023
Museum of Fire Volunteers posing in front of the Commer which received a Heritage Trust Award Nomination, 2023

A highlight of the last twelve months was taking several of the Museum’s volunteers to the Australian National Trust Heritage Awards, where the Museum’s Commer restoration project was shortlisted in the moveable heritage category. This nomination is a great acknowledgment of all the hard work the Museum’s volunteers put into each and every project, plus highlights how invaluable their knowledge on the vehicle collection is. We are endeavouring to find new ways to encourage younger generations to come and spend time with the Museum’s volunteers as our greatest fear is that all of this knowledge will be lost as the average age of our volunteers continues to climb. 

To engage with the public our team continue the monthly fire engine parades whereby different vehicles from the collection join in venturing to different parts of Sydney. It is our volunteers who have the knowledge required to ensure these vehicles can get onto the road each month and they are the ones who take the lead in these outings. 

In addition to this we continue to offer small special events throughout the year including our family days which feature free activities in addition to discounted museum entry prices. These have been well attended over the last twelve months, despite our most recent day in October being impacted by the unseasonal heat and a total fire ban. 

We once again hosted a temporary exhibition from the National Museum of Australia and our heritage team completed eight heritage projects for FRNSW, including five station openings or centenaries. It’s been a busy year, with 2024 looking even busier for the heritage team!

Oran Park Station Opening, February 2023
Oran Park Station Opening, February 2023

On a personal level I had the privileged of attending the annual Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMAGA) conference in May 2023, along with the Museum’s Curator Benjamin Dickson. This conference was held in Newcastle, NSW and was one of the most energetic and inspiring museum conferences I’d been to throughout my entire career. On the back of this excellent event, both Ben and I returned to the Museum with many ideas and future concepts that we have already been able to put into action and as we enter 2024 many more of these concepts will come to fruition. 

Additionally, in September 2023 I returned to Perth, Western Australian; this time with our Operations Manager Kristine McDonell, where she attended the AMAGA Shop Association annual conference, and I was able to meet with staff and volunteers at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Education and Heritage Centre where we discussed future projects and potential interstate collaboration. This trip proved to be a great success with more emphasis on the Museum’s shop as a source of revenue and given the niche area of fire museum’s it is always important to remain in direct discussion with similar organisations. 

Before I sign off this 2023 CEO report I’d like to pay tribute to the Museum’s outgoing Chairman Marcus Baker AFSM. Both Marcus and I came into our respective roles during a period of great uncertainty and instability. With no precedence for the way in which we assumed our posts, there was no hand-over or someone to fill-in any (of the very many) blanks. Instead, we had to pave our own way and work things out as we went along. I think we made a great team and to see how far the Museum has developed in this time is a testament to Marcus’ unwavering support, especially in his ability to go along with some of my more unusual ideas with a smile and a quote drawn from an inspirational leader, or on some occasions an old song. I don’t think the Museum would have been able to change as rapidly without Marcus’ guidance and friendly ear and for that both I and the entire Museum team are forever grateful. I am sad to see Marcus step down from his role as Chairman but I take comfort in knowing he will remain an active asset to the Board. 

The year 2023 began with a severe storm that caused damage to the Museum, especially the south facing sign on the roof of the building. No longer did it state “Museum” instead the word partly broke away in the wild weather, leaving us unsure of how it would be fixed. In what has turned into a metaphor for the year, we were able to rally and have the sign fixed by winter. Just the like our sign, the Museum may have been battered and bruised by the recent difficult years but with a bit of teamwork the Museum has been revitalised and now, just the like the sign, looks better than ever!

-Blog by CEO Belinda McMartin


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