A Trip to Bletchley Park, or, An Informal Lesson in the Definition of Gross Indecency
Hello readers, you may remember me from such University of Leicester post-grad societies as New History Lab, my name’s Mark and I’m an alumni of the Centre for Urban History. Over the Christmas holiday my partner and I went on a day trip to Bletchley Park; after reading some of my illuminating and incredibly entertaining tweets (@thehistoryb0y, just in case anyone might be interested in following...), Amy (@dr_amyjaneb) suggested I write a guest-post for The Attic about the trip, so this is what this is, hope you like it!
Bletchley Park is a 19th century mansion and grounds in Buckinghamshire (now floating in the middle of Milton Keynes, something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone). From the start of the 20th century, Bletchley Park was one of the sites the British government used for international communications. Bletchley Park is most famous for its role during World War Two, when a huge team of experts intercepted, decrypted and translated codes from German Enigma machines, unveiling positions of German troops and U-boats to the Allied Forces. One of the key individuals in codebreaking at Bletchley Park was Alan Turing, but more about him later.
Bletchley Park has been open as a museum since 1994, celebrating and commemorating the actions of the workers at the Park and the repercussions they had for modern history (it’s fair to say that the Second World War would’ve lasted years longer without the work of Alan Turing and his colleagues). In December 2011, Bletchley Park secured £4.6million funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and £550,000 from Google to extend and update the museum. Due to the elements of secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park, its status as a place of national importance wasn’t really recognised in the decades after World War Two, so a lot of the huts and outbuildings fell into disrepair. A lot of the work of the Bletchley Park Trust and Milton Keynes Council has been turning these into habitable museum spaces, so we can celebrate the people of Bletchley Park properly. Having grown up floating in the middle of Milton Keynes myself (bleugh), I remember going on a school trip to the museum, which on reflection can’t have been long after it opened so we can forgive it my terror-laden memories of scary looming mannequins in World War Two garb and impenetrable interpretation boards. With this in mind I attempted to manage the expectations of my partner who had been asking about a trip since we first met...
Alan Turing was one of the top cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, and interpretation relating to him features in one of the first areas of museum. Turing was also gay; despite his huge contributions to computer science and the war, he was convicted of ‘Gross Indecency’ in 1952 and punished with chemical castration, a long series of female hormone injections (not that you’d learn any of this from a visit to Bletchley Park). Rather than endure this, Turing committed suicide in 1954 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. My partner is a gay mathematician, and I’m a gay historian, so we both have a vested interest in the representation of Turing at Bletchley Park, and feel that his story is a strong part of gay history in the 20th century. Turing’s story is being celebrated and remembered by other institutions this year because 2012 is the centenary of his birth; the Post Office have just approved the design of stamps to celebrate this, and the Turing Centenary Committee are collaborating a worldwide series of events in celebration.
Unfortunately we were largely disappointed by Bletchley Park’s contribution.
The Turing timeline was almost offensively vague when it came to how Alan Turing ended his short life, stating ‘1952: convicted for Gross Indecency, 1954: died from cyanide poisoning’ [see image at left]. An accident of this was that we were able to witness the heartening act of a child asking his dad what ‘Gross Indecency’ meant, and his dad explaining much better than the museum exactly what happened to Turing and why (hence the title). Well done him. The only honest and sensitive part of the exhibit was the framed Apology, written by Gordon Brown in 2009, which did detail Turing’s treatment by Britain, but was woefully vaguely interpreted by the museum.
Other parts of the museum were excellent – getting to see parts of the original Turing Bombe (so named because the idea was thought up during pudding!), and the immense effort that had gone into building a replica, seeing Colossus in the National Museum of Computing, and seeing some great new interpretation about spies and double agents, including learning about Ian Fleming’s connections to Bletchley Park, were great, really worth it.
Unfortunately though, there were further disappointments to come. We came to the conclusion that a fair amount of the HLF and Google money needs desperately to be spent on staff and volunteer training (also a new website, but that’s another rant!) We weren’t exactly welcomed; the curator of the Churchill Collection reacted to our walking round the exhibit as if we were rifling through his own pockets; the guide at the Colossus ignored us completely;
and this sign [see photo] was pinned to one of the interpretation boards (not in a non-public space or someone’s office, but actually on a display board, next to information about World War Two vehicles), sort of summed up how the staff work! When we were on our way out of the museum, where most other museums’ staff would say ‘thank you for visiting, I hope you enjoyed your day, tell your friends, tell the world, did you know we’re on twitter?’, we got an ‘a’righ’’... charming. The final piece of bad customer service from Bletchley Park is that a lot of our tweets throughout the day were written including the Bletchley Park twitter account (@bletchleypark), meaning they will have received notifications about how we (enjoyed and) weren’t so pleased with the experience. They are yet to respond...
In conclusion, Bletchley Park has improved dramatically since my school trip days, with the scary mannequins only featuring in a small corner, but I think a lot of work is needed to bring the museum up to a good standard (there is evidence that the museum is aware of this, there are interpretation boards showing how they expect to expand and improve in future). Whilst they did tell a story about Alan Turing, they chose which parts of the story to tell (which every museum is guilty of, but I think Bletchley Park has a responsibility here), ignoring parts which are seen as important if not integral to some peoples’ history. I look forward to seeing how Bletchley Park makes use of the £5million+ they’ve been granted, but it would’ve been really great to be able to fill in some consultation material, or at least receive recognition of our concerns and the praise given through Twitter.
[Update: (05/01/12) Mark got a tweet from @bletchleypark apologising for their disappointment at parts of the exhibition and asking for further contact, hooray!]
[Update 2: (09/01/12) Mark received the following response from Kelsey Griffin of Bletchley Park:
Many thanks for your considered and balanced response - it really is always good to have feedback and suggestions. Of course - please feel free to publish my email on the blog. I am pleased to confim that the offending sign has been removed. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
The only aspect where we may have to slightly agree to differ is about the Turing exhibition. The panel with the text I sent previously is a standalone panel accounting for one-ninth of the exhibition panel space and not buried within a block of text. Although of course Bletchley Park ceased its codebreaking function in 1945 and so was no longer operational in 1954 when Turing died, we do actually include reference to the reaction of a BP colleague, Max Newman as follows;-
Max Newman testified for Turing at his
trial in 1952 and Alan’s death in 1954
was the most shattering experience for
the Newman family.
There was so much to Turing's short life that there is much we have missed out including more detail of his sporting prowess. Also, we should bear in mind that this particular exhibition is about the collection of papers but I will certainly bear your feedback in mind for future exhibition development.
Again, many thanks for taking the time to give us feedback and I look forward to seeing you on your next visit!
Kindest Regards, Kelsey