Half-hour tours of the Police Museum and the Fire Museum
Learn all about cops and firefighters in 30 minutes.
Mon Jul 20 2009
Like kids everywhere, my son Henry, 6, is impressed by cops and firefighters. He admires the noise their cars and trucks make, the tools they use and the courage they summon to keep NYC safe. Needless to say, I didn’t have to persuade him to visit the New York City Police Museum and the New York City Fire Museum, both of which are housed in century-old buildings that once saw active duty.
After ambling past the sergeant’s desk, we entered a room devoted to transportation. Henry zeroed in on a model of a predecessor to the helicopter, then kept busy pressing buttons on the walls. One made ceiling-mounted police-car lights flash; another triggered a siren. Henry wondered whether the doors on a 1972 Plymouth Fury patrol car would open; unfortunately, they did not.
Peering into a case in a first-floor gallery, Henry was fascinated by The Bashful Burglar, an illustration from Inspector Thomas Byrnes’s 1886 book The Rogues Gallery that depicts a bad guy surrounded by policemen. “What did he do?” Henry asked. The third degree continued until we reached the second floor.
We stepped off the elevator into Heritage Hall, where we surveyed patches displaying the symbols of different units, from mounted police to pilots. Henry declared the plane icon his favorite.
In a replica of a holding cell, Henry discovered that prisoners have no privacy—not even when using the toilet. Together, we imagined living in a room with only a glassless mirror, a sink, a bunk bed, a urinal and a barred window. A discussion on whether kids go to jail ensued.
We escaped the slammer and entered an exhibit on weapons and criminals. Both Henry and I were mesmerized by the collection of Bertillon cards. Before fingerprinting became a standard procedure, cops relied on these cards to identify suspects. Each bears an individual’s basic stats—alias, height, birthplace—and a photo. I challenged Henry to find the youngest perp (age 13).
Al Capone’s tommy gun is displayed in the same room, along with Get Smart--esque concealed weapons (a walking stick that sheathed a gun, a rifle that fit snugly into a violin case). While I tried to interest Henry in an officer’s tool belt, he preferred pondering whether Capone would have liked to kill Hitler.
The first floor presents the evolution of firefighting. Henry passed through quickly, pausing only to examine a few items: leather buckets—in use when buildings were no more than two stories tall and were built of wood—a ladder truck from 1882 and a water pump made in 1790.
A nearby nook is stocked with child-sized bunker gear including helmets, boots and jackets. Dress-up enthusiasts and aspiring flame-dousers often linger here, but Henry—who’s not much into costumes—donned an outfit only after I requested a photo op.
Back in plain clothes, he finally became captivated by firefighting. He couldn’t get enough of a wall of tools displayed with contextual photos: The Life Net can catch jumpers from buildings, and the Jaws of Life are used to pry people from crushed vehicles. Henry stood next to a photo of a car accident and asked variations on one question over and over again: “How did this happen?”
Across the room, a taxidermied dog formerly known as Little Brown Mutt served as an entre into the role canines have played in fighting fires. It is said that this pup could hear the cries of kids, the elderly and even cats above a roaring blaze.
On the elevator ride to the second floor, Henry stood between two red hydrants, placing a hand on each one. This position caused him inexplicable glee.
We ended our visit by touring the floor’s 19th century exhibit. Henry examined hand-pulled wagons, badges and a water pump used in celebrations for the undraping of the Statue of Liberty. On our way out, we saw a painting of the 1865 fire at Barnum’s Museum in lower Manhattan, during which firemen killed an escaped tiger. This prompted a question to which there is no satisfying answer for a child: “Why did the tiger have to die?”