National computer museum downgraded by Bletchley Park

Summary:Bletchley Park has secured £8 million of Lottery funding as the home of Britain's wartime codebreaking, but has now shortened its guided tours by excluding the National Museum of Computing's Colossus and Tunny Galleries, which are at the heart of that codebreaking success. It's like staging Hamlet without the prince.

 

The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park is being isolated by the new management regime at Bletchley Park Trust, which has started an £8 million Lottery-funded restoration project. At least one of its long-serving volunteers has been dismissed for including TNMOC in a guided tour, and some established attractions are being evicted. This includes a selection of Churchill memorabilia and a model railway that was popular with children.

The problems were exposed by tearful scenes in a BBC TV news broadcast on Friday (Bletchley Park's bitter dispute over its future, above), followed up by a TNMOC statement today (Monday).

The Trust has reduced its guided tour of Bletchley Park from 90 minutes or more to 60 minutes, but saved time by excluding all of the computer museum, including the Colossus and Tunny Galleries. Showing visitors these galleries got Tony Carroll fired.

"They haven’t got a clue," Carroll told the BBC. "They are ruining this place."

On its website, the Trust says the BBC News report "created an impression of disharmony" and claims "this is not an accurate impression". However, disharmony clearly exists, because TNMOC says it is "very much opposed to the fragmentation of Bletchley Park currently being undertaken by the Bletchley Park Trust". This goes beyond its exclusion from guided tours to the erection of "gates and barriers between its own display area and Block H [which] will almost certainly prove divisive".

The Trust's statement says: "The National Museum of Computing was formed in 2006 and is run by a separate charitable trust. It willingly entered into a lease agreement with the Bletchley Park Trust to rent Block H on the Bletchley Park site to house its museum. This museum remains on-site and accessible, by way of a separate admission charge, to anyone visiting Bletchley Park."

Although this is strictly true, it's also a very divisive line to take. The fact is that Bletchley Park is a pleasant little mansion that nobody would have heard of — or bothered to rescue — had it not been the temporary home of Britain's World War II codebreakers, and had those codebreakers not broken Germany's cyphers.

That they did it with some of the first electronic computers made Bletchley Park not just of national but of international importance. A visit to Bletchley Park that doesn't include the Colossus rebuild is like a Hamlet without the prince.

The campaign to save Bletchley Park depended almost wholly on the code-creaking aspect, and it was the Colossus rebuild and similar efforts by TNMOC that generated public interest and, ultimately, financial support for the whole site. Having trousered the Lottery money, it now looks as though the Trust wants to keep it.

In TNMOC's words: "Negotiations with the Bletchley Park Trust to achieve a fair and equitable financial arrangement to give all Bletchley Park fee-paying visitors access to Colossus and Tunny have proved exceedingly difficult."

TNMOC_photo_by_Jack_Schofield
TNMOC is housed in restored war-time huts. Photo: Jack Schofield

It would make sense to have one entry fee for the whole site, because adding extra charges always looks like a rip-off. As it is, TNMOC pays the Bletchley Park Trust £100,000 a year to rent Block H, and it charges visitors separately: £5 for the whole museum, or £2 for the just the Colossus and Tunny Galleries. (Concessions are half price, while children 13 and under are free. TNMOC tells me that it is possible to visit only TNMOC.)

If TNMOC has to survive only on admission fees, it will have a tough time. The Trust's actions in excluding it from tours and fencing it off have already reduced the number of visitors, making it even tougher.

The Trust's approach to the future may be illustrated by the creation of its own cybersecurity exhibition and learning zone in a newly-refurbished block, which will be funded for five years by McAfee. This is about covering the national curriculum and attracting school visits, with McAfee staff volunteers teaching online safety courses. However, you may have heard of it only because it got some bad publicity for excluding any mention of Edward Snowden and his NSA whistle-blowing.

The Trust's current actions may also affect its future support. At BoingBoing, novelist and geek Cory Doctorow wrote: "For people like me who've donated over the years, fundraised for it, and joined the Friends of Bletchley, this is really distressing news. I've always dreamt of Bletchley getting enough funding to do the site and its collection justice, but if it comes at the expense of decency and integrity, they may as well have left it as Churchill did — abandoned and forgotten."

Further reading

Topics: United Kingdom, After Hours

About

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first webs... Full Bio

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