Volume 20, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 8 - 14, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Helaina N. Hovitz
Damon Campagna admires a fireman’s speaking trumpet, presented to William “Boss” Tweed in 1851 when he stepped down as foreman of the Americus Six engine company to become a New York City alderman.
Fire Museum’s new director is man of all trades
BY Helaina N. Hovitz
Now that Damon Campagna has been appointed director of the New York City Fire Museum, everyone else can just go home. Campagna can conceivably do it all himself.
Last Saturday, he commuted from his Bed-Stuy apartment just to bring the flag in at half-mast in honor of firefighter Gary Valentino’s death. On Monday, he fixed the timer on the lamps outside of the building so he wouldn’t have to bother the FDNY Buildings Unit.
The museum originally hired Campagna, who left his job as director of the Warwick Museum of Art, to catalogue and photograph over 10,000 of the museum’s artifacts. Over the past two years, he has also worked as a curator and project manager, paying painstaking attention to detail. When he designed all of the graphics for the museum’s current art exhibit, he made sure that the font on the show cards matched the typeface on the back of the FDNY bunker coats.
Campagna is an asset to the museum as a former graphic designer, artist, and reporter, but he was born to litigate. Campagna is the kind of person who will go about his day thinking of ways to make things run more smoothly, whether it’s the timing of a traffic light or how many employees the Starbucks on the corner needs to run more efficiently.
Now that he is director, Campagna is ready to get started on a long list of potential improvements he has been compiling over the past two years.
“We don’t do a very good job of telling our visitors what firefighters actually do; currently it’s the traditional model of simply putting objects on display with no real chronology or narrative,” he said. “We also don’t have any permanent display involving the diversity of the department, or the role of women firefighters.
Aside from updating the exhibits, Campagna is putting his thinking cap on to find ways of attracting people who aren’t relatives of firefighters or department employees to the museum. He wants to dramatically increase the museum’s community outreach, host events in the evenings, and, at the very least, keep the museum open later than 5 p.m.
“This neighborhood is only five percent residential,” he said. “If we stay open later, we’ll be able to give access to people all over the city, especially people within the community.”
One thing that will not change, however, is the September 11th firefighter’s memorial. Changing the monument itself is unthinkable, he said, because survivors’ families and the NYFD consider it a sacred shrine. He does, however, want to create a second memorial to all of the FDNY firefighters who lost their lives over the past 150 years.
“One of the tragedies of 9/11 is that it took the event to remind people of how dangerous the job is every day,” said Campagna. “It’s important that those individuals are not forgotten — their deaths are as tragic as the 343.”
Campagna’s colleagues believe his promotion was long overdue.
“Everyone went to him for help even before he became the director,” said museum employee Pearl Ramos “That’s probably part of why he got promoted. He makes it very easy to go to him for anything regarding the museum.”
Ramos added that Campagna is more involved in the museum than anyone else who has worked there, and is always suggesting new things for the museum.
“I always thought Damon should be the director,” said Joshua Erazo, the museum’s store manager. “He’s much better than the last one.”
Campagna said he doesn’t do much outside of the museum, and often spends a good deal of personal time working from home.
“I have all this time off that I can take and I haven’t taken any. I haven’t been on vacation since April of 2008,” he said. “The closest thing I took to a vacation this year was a trip to Baltimore for a firefighting museum conference.”
So what does Campagna do when he finally takes time for himself?
“I like adventure movies, I like science fiction, things that are escapist,” he said. “I’m also a huge fan of wrestling, America’s only truly unique performing art.”
Campagna has a special affinity for history, having hailed from Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, where colonial houses still line the sidewalks.
“It’s amazing to have an entire community not only care about their history, but be so passionate about it and still throw grand parties and parades to celebrate it,” he noted. “That left a huge impression on me.”
Campagna wears his state pride on his sleeve, or rather, under it, sporting tattoos of the Warwick’s city and Rhode Island state seals.
“I plan to get one for New York City — I’m still thinking about it. Maybe I’ll ask our members and make it a contest. It might make a good fundraiser.”