Plug In to a Person to Get the Stories: a visit to the Boston Fire Museum

Day 374

The Boston Fire Museum is a small, free museum in the Fort Point area, near the Children's Museum and the Seaport District. It's open Saturdays 11 to 5, plus group tours by appointment during the week. The museum is on the first floor of an old firehouse that operated from 1891 to 1977, and it's been a museum since 1983. It's filled with old fire engines and firefighting equipment (hydrant thawing devices! I never thought about that, but of course they need those), as well as other artifacts of fire history. Dozens, if not a hundred, fire helmets from different eras hang from the rafters. There are artifact labels here and there, and a self-guided tour on the app Uniguide, but the best way to learn about the exhibits is to talk to one of the museum's volunteers.
Half a dozen patterned glass balls with necks like a wine or beer bottle's neck. They are various shades of blue. The photo is taken in front of a reflective surface, with the camera's flash visible at the top.
Early 20th century fire extinguishing hand grenades. The glass vessels, filled with a toxic chemical,
were thrown at small fires to put them out. Photo from the Boston Fire Museum's website.

I'm glad I visited this quirky little museum. I have a weakness for museums that smell a bit like machine oil, and I saw and learned interesting things. I think most people wouldn't want to make a special trip for it, but if you're in that neighborhood on a Saturday, you should definitely stop by. The exception is if you have young kids, or are a bit of a "spark" yourself -- in those cases, the Boston Fire Museum is definitely worth going out of your way for. The place is poorly organized (and some of the aisles don't look wheelchair-accessible) but it allows for the kind of exploration and discovery you get in an antique shop with jam-packed shelves. I happened to be there during a kid's birthday party, which they do a lot of. All of the kids and most of the parents seemed to be having a blast, and yes, there is a fire truck they can sit in. 

A red fire truck that would have been pulled by a horse. In the back there is a large black metal tank and a smaller, bulb-shaped tank that has the gleam of copper
A steam-powered water pumper fire engine. This one's a bit older than
the ones the kids can sit on. Photo from the Boston Fire Museum's website.

When I arrived at the museum, all of the volunteers were focused on the kids -- the museum is also open to the public during parties -- and I noticed one glance at me to see if I was looking for help or an introduction, but I really prefer to wander museums on my own, so I didn't actually talk to anyone until the end of my visit. This museum is honestly not set up well for "wander, explore, and read" types like me. Some of the labels were informative, while others used technical language I didn't understand, and some were blocked from view by the artifacts. One label was placed too high for me to read, probably seven feet up with maybe 14 or 16 pt type. When the party guests had moved upstairs to the party space, a docent asked me if I had any questions, and while I couldn't think of any at the time (what was that technical term I was stuck on, again?) we did chat a bit. He told me about the audio guide, but said the real way to see the museum is to "plug in to a person to get the stories."

Some museums work best as a venue for passionate people to tell stories about a subject. This museum is very clearly a labor of love, and is the product of a niche interest that has very dedicated followers. The all-volunteer museum is managed by a committee of the Boston Sparks Association -- "sparks" are what enthusiasts of firefighting, fire history, and related facts and trivia call themselves. As far as I can tell, they are unrelated to the Boston Fire Historical Society, although I imagine there's overlap in membership. Neither organization is officially related to the Boston Fire Department, although they contain a number of current and retired fire fighters. 

Photo of a small dalmatian with a spot over one eye, sitting on the floor with a leash that's held by someone out of frame.
Sparky, one of the intrepid volunteers I met during my visit.
Photo from the Boston Fire Museum's website.

As a visitor, I sometimes get frustrated by going to a museum that doesn't have people to ask questions of, when I'm in the mood for that personal touch. Other times, I get frustrated by going to a museum when I'm not in a chatty mood only to find that the exhibits themselves aren't very robust without interpretation from a live person. As a museum professional, I understand just how hard it can be to keep a big enough corps of trained, passionate staff or volunteers to reliably cover every shift. I wonder whether it would be useful and meaningful for some museums to present themselves as "storytelling centers." I wouldn't go to the "Boston Fire Storytelling Center" on a day when I just wanted to read some clearly-written labels and look at the artifacts, and I'd definitely know to seek it out when I wanted to talk to an expert. There are plenty of problems with this idea, from consistent staffing to getting the public to understand what the name means, but the role of storytelling is a concept a number of museums are playing with and talking about, and it's worth continuing the conversation.