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State Press Places: A flaming hot museum

The education curator at the Hall of Flame discusses the importance of the museum's history


Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

The Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting is a historic firefighting museum located next to ASU's Tempe campus. In this episode, podcaster Mackenzie Marchello sits down with curator of education Mark Moorhead and current ASU art student Claudia Garcia to discuss the important role the museum serves. 

Mackenzie Marchello: Tucked into a corner, just about 10 minutes from ASU's Tempe campus is the Hall of Fame museum, dedicated to teaching the world history of firefighting. Open from nine to five most days of the week, it is a great place to go when you want a fresh and unique perspective on the world around you. As I walk through the galleries full of huge and ornate firetrucks, I learned more than I could have possibly imagined. 

Mark Moorhead: Hi, my name is Mark Moorhead and I am the curator of education here at the Hall of Fame Museum of Firefighting. We are the largest historical firefighting museum in the world. We try to trace the social and technological history of fire and firefighting, but we try to trace it all the way back to the bucket, and how people fought fires when that was all they had to fight fires with pretty much. 

Mackenzie Marchello: Is that, essentially, why the Hall of Flame was created, to bring the historical awareness and understanding of what firefighting is?

Mark Moorhead: That is absolutely why it was created, although, the short answer to that is, it was just created because fire trucks are cool. 

Mackenzie Marchello: What do you think are the most interesting or important exhibits here? 

Mark Moorhead: My favorite is Gallery One, which is 19th century and earlier, hand and horse drawn. The human ingenuity that developed to control fire is something that you can just see manifested in our collection as you walk through and you see all these clever innovations that were made. To me, that's something that makes me feel inspired about human creativity. 

Mackenzie Marchello: And you mention that innovation and that creativity, do you think it is important for students that are at ASU, number one in innovation, to come here? 

Mark Moorhead: Our whole collection is a history of innovation. We like to say here, that you can make the argument, that the history of civilization is the history of firefighting. That step one for human beings is, "Here is fire, here is all this cool stuff you can do with it." It is kind of what human beings have instead of fangs and claws and fur, you know, is fire. 

And it is what Prometheus snuck us from the gods and hooked us up with. But the other side of that is, uh oh, here is what happens the minute you let fire get out of control. Most cultures have some version of the proverb that fire is a good servant but a bad master. You can make the argument that the whole history of civilization is keeping fire a servant and not letting it become a master. 

And we show how that was done at a really high level of ingenuity. When you think about the great cities of the world, the people in New York and Chicago and Tokyo and Shanghai and San Francisco and London, most of them at a certain point probably weren't all that much bigger than downtown Tempe. Because they could not be. Because once or twice a decade, you know, a quarter or a third of your city would burn down. These devices were the beginning of the process that allowed huge metropolitan areas to grow, for better or for worse. Controlling fire was an essential part of that. 

 And it's not to say that big city fires didn't happen, of course. Everybody has heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Here at the museum, we have a rig that fought the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. You had a real shot at controlling that and it was something that enabled cities to get bigger and to expand and become more centralized. And when people started leaving the rural areas and moving to the urban areas it became more and more important to be able to do that.

Mackenzie Marchello: What's your favorite story to tell about the museum?

Mark Moorhead: The way the museum was founded was really cool. It was founded in the state of Wisconsin and it was a man by the name of George Getz, his wife, a nice lady named Olive Getz gave him a firetruck as a Christmas present. A 1955 American LaFrance from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And he loved it. He'd never been a firefighter. He was just kind of interested in it. 

He loved it and he gave his kids and neighborhood kids rides in it and stuff like that. And he became a reserve firefighter in this little town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But he also became I guess the kind word would be interested, in fire trucks, and he started to collect more and more and more of them and in a very short time, 1961, just five, six years. He had enough to start a small museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin and some crony of his said that he should call it the Hall of Flame, thought that was very funny. So they did, and I always point out that we are one of the very few museums in the world that can claim that our name is a pun. He also developed a very serious interest in the history of firefighting, fire safety, fire technology, and that kind of drove the museum out here in Arizona in the 60s or 70s. We've been in this location since 1973. 

And in that time, his interest was serious enough that it actually has grown into the largest museum of its kind in the world. There are about 200 firefighting museums in the country and many in other countries as well, it's a very popular genre of museum, l guess you would say. But, we are, as far as we know at least, we're the biggest in the world. 

Claudia Garcia: Hello, my name is Claudia. I'm a museum studies major, a junior, here at Arizona State University. I'm a docent and front desk assistant at the Hall of Flame Firefighting Museum. 

Mackenzie Marchello: What's your favorite part about working at Hall of Fame? 

Claudia Garcia: My favorite part, is when people come in we get to do a little spiel about the museum. Just a bunch of fun facts that I've memorized. I can tell you that we are over thirty-five thousand square feet, we have 90 apparatus in the gallery at any time and we have a patch collection of over seventy two hundred from departments all over the world. Most of the time it's people that are really passionate about firefighting, you know, the retired firefighters and their families. Giving them this information, this resource. And then they go and touch things and have to tell them "Please don't touch the fire trucks." It's great. 

Mackenzie Marchello: As an ASU student, why do you think it's important to visit the Hall of Flame? 

Claudia Garcia: I think with a lot of small museums, they focus on untold stories. It really brings to light this culture that you don't really hear of a lot. You don't know a lot about firefighter culture unless you're a volunteer firefighter, or you have firefighters in your family. Coming to see, how their history has shaped everyone's history because as a public servant they do so much for everyone else. And coming and knowing and appreciating that, I think, is something that everyone should do because you know you just get to expand your knowledge, your personal knowledge and also your cultural knowledge. I mean, I think there's nothing more fun than memorizing really interesting, niche facts about fire history. 

Mackenzie Marchello: And along with that, what's the most interesting thing you've learned? 

Claudia Garcia: Right behind the front desk, there is this very large fire apparatus from I think 1886. It is huge and it takes 50 men to pump. And when I first got there, Pat who was training me, he told me that the murals around the middle were the original ones from when it was in operation. Because when we received it, it had white around the inside and our restorer Don Hale was cleaning that and he found those underneath. It was really a hidden treasure moment. And it's one of the most authentic pieces of fire history that no one really thinks about. The older wooden rigs with the metal tires, and hand pulled or horse pulled, they think of the beautiful machines with the hand painted decoration and the siren and there was so much before that. Knowing that prehistory, I think, is really important and it's something that I enjoy doing, for sure. 

Mackenzie Marchello: For The State Press, I'm Mackenzie Marchello. 

Previous episode(s):  

State Press Play: Academics and the Tarot, where is the connection?

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