A Trip to Bletchley Park, or, An Informal Lesson in the Definition of Gross Indecency

Today we have a guest post by one of our counterparts from History, Mark Small, about Bletchley Park, which we have featured on the blog before. In his review of his visit, Mark makes some excellent points about museums and visitor engagement and the interpretation of history. If you've been to Bletchley Park, or represent the museum itself, we want to hear from you in the comments. And now, over to Mark:

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:

Dear Mark,

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
Well done Mark for prompting debate and effecting change on these important issues!]


M Pentlow said…
I used to volunteer at Bletchley Park and I still have a great affection for the place and its staff. I can understand however your views. The visitor interpretation at the Park at the current time is not ideal. It is a legacy of poor funding and the fact that the Park didn't have any collections when it was first set up.

Most of the Park's funds over the years have been used to keep the buildings viable for public use. Many have had building work or still need it. The site was designed to last the second world war not for 70 years. The current HLF money will allow the trust to bring the museum elements much more up to date.
One small question did you go on the guided tour? It is free for all visitors and a highlight of any visit. It is an example of effective first hand interpretation and sometimes features former WRENS who worked at the park or one of its outstations. Also the bulk of the computer museum is very good, with updated displays and some use of QR codes. I am also surprised you did not receive a response via twitter as the twitter account is very active, but I believe it is only run by one person.

I should point out that I no longer volunteer for the park, and the views above are my own.
Philip Le Grand (@bpteditor) said…
I have volunteered at BP nearly 10 years. In that time I have seen enormous changes to the site, exhibitions & facilities over the years, considering the incredibly small amount of money the trust had to make any changes & the bare minimum of staff available to run the place I think they have coped extremely well. Especially when you think that whenever winter looms another huge bill for repairs rears its head - replacement heating systems, replacement roofs, making the roads safe for pedestrians, etc. - the list is endless & each year one or two more items get fixed on the merest budget. What was available had to have its use very carefully planned to prevent a deeper decline into debt.
You may say that is all well & good, but what about the announcements of money awarded to the Trust recently? There have been substantial donations, but often with strings (large ropes?) attached. The money often couldn't be spent on the next urgent repair since the red tape around the 'gift' prevented accessing the money immediately. In several cases, it could not be used for basic infrastructure repairs or required match funding first.
BP is a privately run museum & has to work very hard to get funding. Despite this, publicity has gone skyward all due to the dedicated following of Twitter & Facebook fans. They wouldn’t have done this, if they had the same experience that you reported. Several volunteers hold fund raising events at the Park that have helped enormously to improve the displays (thanks go to Jason Gorman, Astrid Byro & the Over The Air event to name but a few).
Granted the site isn’t the epitome of a high tech, glossy, modern museum that you would see at the IWM or Science Museum, but that is a part of the charm & attraction of the place. The information isn’t immediately in your face, it is gradually revealed to you over a period of time – especially when you realise the mental feats some of these people went through – & then you can get to meet some of them! Where else can you get this kind of experience?
Another factor that keeps the museum working on a budget is the dedicated volunteers who turn out to ensure visitors have a good day. As you can appreciate, it may be difficult to persuade volunteers to come in over the seasonal break. There is a visitor’s book (yes, real pen & paper, but it is read!) in the shop to which visitors are often directed to comment on their experience. I have seen many of these & the vast majority are all good – families who enjoyed themselves & have returned. The events at BP are usually very well attended & help make return visits a must.
My voluntary involvement has been in a dual capacity, firstly as a Steward, meeting & greeting visitors, ensuring they find their tours, coaches, spouses, the facilities, etc. & secondly as Editor of the Friends of the Park magazine. My knowledge, in all that time, of what happened at the Park in those few short war years only scratches the surface of the stories & information to be gleaned. The thing that keeps me going back is the opportunity to learn more, meet interesting people & the ‘quirky / unpredictable’ nature of working there. Regular volunteers also Tweet about the Park & TNMoC including Guides & Duty Managers, even an ex Code breaker tweets.
It is a shame that you left BP feeling that your day could have been enjoyed a lot better. Personally I see many visitors when I’m on site & virtually all (and I mean that) come up to us & express how much they have enjoyed their visit & would recommend it to their friends & relatives. Agreed, the museum isn’t to everyone’s taste, but on an events day, there are other attractions. Now you have been, you must be in possession of the Annual Season ticket that will get you in free again? I suggest another visit during 2012 during one of the events & see how much visitors enjoy the park - & hopefully you will see a different side to the BP experience.
Mark said…
Hi Mr Pentlow, thanks for your comments. I also have affection for Bletchley Park, I lived in Milton Keynes for the first 18 years of my life and it was always somewhere to be proud of.

I appreciate that Bletchley Park as a museum has not been easy or rich, I hope my blogpost conveyed sympathy with this and not criticism because of it. I have a lot of experience of working with closed historic buildings and raising funding to maintain them, so I really can relate to the difficulties the museum's had in the past.

We decided not to go on the Guided Tour so that we could discover the Park by ourselves, I appreciate that our experience of interactions with staff were fleeting and during a quiet period at the museum, and that the next visitors could easily have had a different experience of the staff.

We were very impressed with the use of QR codes and the standard of interpretation at the computer museum, unfortunately we were there on a day when only the Colossus exhibition was open. I hope to explore further there in future.

Twitter is a great tool for the people behind museums and historic buildings to connect with visitors, I had noticed that Bletchley Park's account was very well used usually and that's why we were surprised not to get a response straight away. I have since got a response and the opportunity to feed back privately with the Director of Museum Operations.

Thanks again for your comments, I'm really pleased so many people are passionate about Bletchley Park! :)
Mark said…
Hi Philip le Grand, thank you also for your comments.

The comments here certainly show a very dedicated and passionate side to the volunteering at Bletchley Park, I'm honestly pleased to hear that you get so much positive feedback from visitors to the museum.

You make very valid points, about the ways the money awarded to Bletchley Park has been spent and has to be spent, but I'd like to say again that I hope my blogpost doesn't read as if I'm criticising the Park due to it's being not so glossy, I make the point of defending it on that basis because it wasn't recognised for what it was for most of the twentieth century.

I'd also like to think that my blogpost doesn't just read as a complete trash of the museum, I did enjoy many aspects of the exhibits, and made a point of saying so.

I understand that Bletchley Park is a unique museum, and that is one of the reasons it is treasured locally and nationally, however I think you can still maintain this charm without the 'office humour' poster on public display!

I look forward to the opportunity to use my pass again in 2012, so I can see Bletchley Park in full swing. When I do I would like to write a follow up guest post on the Attic's blog, to show different sides of Bletchley Park.
J said…
Excellent post, Mark. You bring up the important issue that visitor experience is affected by all parts of the museum, including label vocabulary and customer service. I thought it was particularly interesting to read your and your partner's response to Turing's biography; it is, indeed a shame that the life of a man so important to science has been reduced to a few lines.

Thanks for stirring up debate in the wider community, as well. It's lovely to see responses from Bletchley's dedicated cadre of volunteers, and these also reflect the challenging limitations faced by the museum in terms of conservation and staffing. I think the important thing to remember is that you, your partner, Phillip Le Grand, and M Pentlow all appreciate and love Bletchley and want to see it succeed in spite of some current problems. I am sure we all wish the administration luck in balancing their budget with their ambitions!
Philip Le Grand (@bpteditor) said…
Mark, I’m glad to hear that you would be visiting BP again. Certainly we all appreciate feedback from visitors on what could be improved and changes are made in response to these – maybe not as fast as one might always like, but they do move on. Without visitor feedback any organisation could be in danger of stagnating, and I appreciate you expressing your experience of the visit. I also appreciate that different people have different senses of humour and a sign that is amusing to one person could be annoying or offensive to another depending on their experience and mood at the time (I have to say I don’t condone the office humour indicated, but I have no connection with it). BP by virtue that lots of the exhibitions are owned by different people and not by the trust adds to the quirky nature of the place – not to everyone’s taste, but so far there has been a lot of happy visitors.
I wanted to help clarify the situation with the various donations that have been made since reading the press reports and not knowing the museum you could get the idea that a lot of money has come in and not much has been done. Such is the way with building work, the basic infrastructure is costly, and time consuming (especially when trying to remain open for visitors) and by the end gives the appearance that not much has happened. A well design display area on the other hand will give that wow-factor. Block C and Block D are in a poor state of decay now (particularly Block C) however, things are looking up with the Heritage Lottery Fund grant and the Google donation (Google recognised Block C as the predecessor to Google!) if the appropriate match funding can be finalised (a simplification on my part). Work will start on renovations soon that will halt the decay process and set them up to be great visitor exhibition areas. There is a lot of potential in these buildings allowing the exhibitions to be properly spaced out with more information available to do better justice to the stories from the sites past.
Finally, I would just like to say that BP epitomises the British wartime spirit. We all like an underdog struggling to achieve better things in the face of adversity (lack of funding, initial attempts to keep its past a secret). The fact that it was a secret brings out the school boy interests in us all, it has bags of stories and heritage to tell, but does it discretely (it’s there for the visitor to uncover if they wish to delve further and their imagination is sparked). It gets by on luck, will power, determination a little bit of money and a lot of love and hard work. Hopefully we are just on the cusp of seeing the transformation into a world class heritage site.
Anonymous said…
As a friend of a former trust employee, you have identified a number of issues rather intuitively. The volunteers are wonderful and hard-working, demotivated and demoralised by incompetent paid staff. One director started out as little more than a receptionist, and the others aren't much better. All bumble along with little care or knowledge of what they are really doing. This constant rivalry with National Museum of Computing (which is usually behind the scenes) sometimes makes it feel as if the war isn't over. Oh, and I'm assured the curator is female by the way.

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