National computer museum downgraded by Bletchley Park

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.

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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

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

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 website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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Talkback

9 comments
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  • Disgraceful

    I grew up in Bletchley and would frequently go to Bletchley Park. Not so see the mansion or memorabilia or any of that nonsense, but to see Colossus and the collection of old computers they have there. By splitting the museum in two they're destroying what was, in my opinion, the best bit.
    SupaRawr93
  • The National Museum of Computing

    The National Museum of Computing has always been a separate charity to Bletchley Park, until recently there has been a reciprocal arrangement about visitors. You can still visit TNMOC for £5 without paying the BP £15 entrance fee. Come and see us and support Colossus and much more. http://tnmoc.org
    shindles308
    • Whew...

      I'm going to England in May and visiting Bletchley Park was on my list of things to do and seeing Colossus was a big part of that. I don't really need the tours...
      The Werewolf!
    • Very relieved to here this!

      I was incredibly excited to get a chance to go see this ... I think the year after colossus was restored.

      For me it was a huge deal. I'd seen the old valve computers on display at the science museum when i was younger but colossus was always the one i wanted to see.

      I had an electronics class in the mid nineties with a really enthusiastic teacher who taught the role of transistors in computing with reference to colossus and i'd always been sad as a student that it hadn't survived.
      MarknWill
    • Fence around H block

      PLease let me know if we can still walk from the Mansion to Tunny etc without going out of the park and back again. Our next visit on 20 March ( our 18th group visit ) will have to park the coach "somewhere" as well, as we are told there is no parking on the site!
      Derek Read
      Bletchleycomp
  • Just wrong

    A few years ago I heard that a number of donations made by large corporations for the preservation of the computers had inadvertently gone to the big house because of the name. Seems Bletchly Park think that people are interested in them and trade on the name whilst robbing the museum for £100000 a year rent. This is a terrible situation where greed is getting in the way of the truth.
    afriendindeed
  • Bletchley Park today

    The trouble is it is now like a lot of places run by nerds who have no real knowledge of what really went on, they just think they know.
    G0FBC
  • Vote with your wallet

    While the Bletchley Park Trust deserve recognition for saving the site from council redevelopment, the Newmanry in Block H housing the Colossus rebuild is at the heart of the Bletchley story. I'm showing my support for the TNMOC by becoming a member today. Hopefully, a spike in donations will signal to the trust that the people want to see the site continue as a unified entity with *NO FENCE*.
    http://www.tnmoc.org/support/become-member
    stevebattle
  • The View of BP Volunteer Guides

    I am a volunteer supporter of both TNMOC and BP and have done guided tours on a voluntary basis for both museums. I have spoken to a number of Bletchley Park volunteer guides and with their agreement, I am responding to the inaccurate information which is being posted on various social media and online websites, The following points are meant to address many of these inaccuracies:

    • The current BP tour format was put together by a team of volunteer guides over a year ago. It was trialled by the team, piloted by the wider guiding community and then formally rolled out. The original format included a visit to The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) to cover the breaking of the German Lorenz cipher and the development of Colossus. This was taking guides a minimum of 90 minutes to complete and in some cases, well over two hours. We felt that this was far too long for elderly visitors and families to cope with. By reducing the tour to 60 minutes, it also helped ease operational pressure by no longer walking large groups of visitors through buildings. The hope was that additional tour formats would be developed to cover other parts of the BP story such as the breaking of the Lorenz Cipher and Colossus.

    • No volunteer BP guide is prevented from telling the Lorenz/Colossus story at TNMOC. A number of volunteer guides schedule a BP tour in the morning and then a TNMOC tour in the afternoon. What we have all agreed is that visitors should be given a break after the 60 minute BP tour. All volunteer guides signpost TNMOC and tell visitors that they can see rebuilds of various machines used in breaking the Lorenz cipher in TNMOC galleries and point out that it is subject to a separate charge. We all want to give each visitor a consistent tour experience and an individual volunteer guide should not take it upon him or herself to extend the agreed format, to suit themselves.

    • Every visitor to BP can easily access TNMOC. The introduction of new fencing simply means that they take a different route to Block H where it is housed. Visitors arriving specifically to visit TNMOC, will take exactly the same route as they did before.

    • The regeneration project is clearly not modernising the wartime buildings and turning BP into a theme park as some people have stated. In fact, exactly the opposite is taking place. The iconic Huts 3 and 6 have been restored as close as possible to their 1940s look and feel with paint analysis used to replicate the wartime colour, 1940s floor boards sourced to replace rotten ones and bomb blast walls rebuilt as they were during the war. Several volunteer guides are advising on the accuracy of the proposed design of some of the rooms and the artefacts within the huts. The intention is to give visitors some experience of what it was like working in them during the war. Block C, the new visitor centre which housed Hollerith punch card equipment during the war, has been faithfully restored to its wartime glory with original radiators and metal windows retained and colours of steel girders matching the wartime look. It is our understanding that some modern technology will be used within the visitor centre and elsewhere to tell the story of BP. But then almost every museum and heritage site that one visits today is using new technology to enhance their visitor’s experience.

    • We accept that some volunteers do not like the changes taking place but the general consensus is that the vast majority do.
    JMG6