Museum shops of the world: Fire Services Museum, Victoria

Lurking in East Melbourne, opposite the Eye and Ear Hospital, is the Fire Services Museum of Victoria. Many times, I’ve gone past on the tram and thought, “Wow, we really need to visit for important No Award reasons!”

Good news, Stephanie and I finally made it! And it was every bit as bizarre amazing as we hoped.

The museum is based in the old head office of the Melbourne Fire Brigade. It was set up in 1979, and — let’s be frank — hasn’t changed a whole lot since. Many of the exhibits are heavily based on creepy mannequins.

Two mannequins in an old-fashioned office. Both wear suits, one has a goatee, the other an impressive handlebar moustache. A portrait of Queen Victoria sits on the wall behind them, but off to the side is a contemporary portrait.

Lots of creepy mannequins.

A mannequin in a fireman's uniform sits at a desk, a look of existential despair mingled with resignation on its face. In his hand is a rusted dip pen.

With dubious mannequin facial hair.

This mannequin is meant to be posed as if he's just slid down a fireman's pole, but his jutting hips and the wrist resting limply on his hip make him look like a half-hearted pole dancer.

Mannequins in unintentionally hilarious poses.

A mannequin's head models a fireman's hat. The face is detailed but unpainted. He wears a long, greying wig, and a small beard that looks like it has been sticky-taped to his face.

Mannequins that look like serial killers with pastede-on beards.

Aside from hilarious mannequins, the museum was, hmm, how can I put this?

Messy.

Displays organised haphazardly, with little sense of a narrative, either chronological or thematic. Artefacts crowded into glass cabinets. A distinct patina of dust. Labels annotated by hand.

It’s very much a volunteer museum, which is reflected not only in the amateurish nature of the displays, but the things which are excluded: women, minorities, wider social contexts. Women appeared only in unabashedly sexist posters (also available for sale in the shop, where one of the volunteers told Stephanie they were the most popular item). Even the volunteers that day were all men, and the guy running the tour of the operations centre took questions from male visitors before he even glanced at Stephanie and I.

All this is pretty disappointing, because there was a lot of cool stuff there, and it would be a great place to take small fire-brigade obsessed humans if it was more child friendly.

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There was an excellent room full of vintage fire trucks (and also a vintage fire bike), including one that small visitors could climb up onto. Sadly, this wasn’t the truck that started life as Dame Nellie Melba’s private car, but that was also quite nifty. The downside is that they really made you work to learn which vehicle was from which era.

Finally, the shop. It was small, and contained many toy fire trucks. And some badges, a couple of postcards, and a rather nifty book of photographs that I kind of yearn to own, but only for important historical novel research purposes.

Stephanie bought the least sexist print available, the one featuring a jolly fireman sipping Manly Cocoa. The vollie behind the counter tried to persuade her that she really wanted the one with the sexy half-naked lady being rescued by a square-jawed firefighter, but she held firm.

Purchased:

  • One print, maybe $6 or $12, but either way, a bargain.

The Fire Services Museum, Victoria

  • 38 Gisborne Street, East Melbourne
  • Getting There: The 86 and 96 trams stop across the road, or it’s a couple of blocks’ walk from Parliament Station
  • Cost of Entry: $10 for adults, but Steph and I got in for $18 on a family ticket
  • Accessibility: Small steps and narrow doorways are everywhere, unfortunately

Overall score:

This is a mixed bag, but we got enough of a kick out of the mannequins to give it three out of five vintage fire engines.

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