Art exhibitions aside, few attractions seem to disappoint as much as museums, especially those we grew up with and re-visit only to find them renovated and dumbed-down to appeal to an average age of under ten and IQ close to room temperature.
London’s Science and Natural History Museums are no longer exciting and involving. Their ancient engines, skeletons and explanatory descriptions repopulated with beautiful highly graphic exhibits, laced with photographs, interactivity and easy to understand words. The learning challenge of a visit to see how pumping engines worked in Cornish tin mines, or how Amazon explorers found a rare species of spider, are gone.
In their place, simple, PC, non-offensive captions are there to guide visitors, spoon feeding the little darlings with all the information they’ll (n)ever need.
Even the Imperial War Museum is close to removing one of the things it was designed for; reminding us of the often needless horrors of human conflict – lest we feel inclined to start another global conflict.
If you can manage Milton Keynes maze of bizarre roundabouts, just a mile or so from the centre of Bletchley (a small town in Buckinghamshire), you’ll find Bletchley Park (BP), a grand old Victorian mansion and one time home to Britain’s wartime code breakers. Today, one it’s of a very few museums anywhere that’s worth a visit.
Step into the entrance gallery and there’s a distinct feeling of an eerily different life. Britain at war, the criticality of reading Germany’s Enigma-encrypted secret messages and a tiny peep at life in the ’40s – it’s all there.
At its peak, there were 8,000 people working at BP, snatching Hitler’s secrets from the ether, grinding away at the encoded text, digging for a “crib” – a tiny glimpse of the message therein, which would enable yet more painstaking mental gymnastics, until, the secret would emerge and the plain text (in German) would emerge.
This was the world of Alan Turing, arguably one of the greatest of code breakers, the man behind the world’s first computer. Even after all these years, his contribution to the war effort is too great to estimate.
BP even discusses Turing’s then illegal homosexuality for visitors to read about – and the humiliation inflicted on him by ungrateful post-war governments and his peers, until he was driven to suicide. BP even has Gordon Brown’s governmental “apology” to Turing on display, albeit half a century late in its arrival.
BP is the ’40s. In those days, the work was done in a very British collection of hastily built wooden huts, each housing a different codebreaking activity and in later wartime years, the machinery developed to help and speed the work.
Block B houses a recreation of Colossus, the first computer, while Hut 11 contained the Bombes, codebreaking machines, based on the pre-war efforts of the Polish codebreakers. Teletypes were everywhere.
The museum says that BP eventually handled more than 5 million messages, from all arms of the German, Italian and Japanese militaries. The Teleprinter Building houses the history of one set of decrypts that were handled with special attention; the decodes of German signals in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Europe (D-Day) in June 1944. The allies were desperate to know that Hitler had bought into the deception that the invasion would land in the Pas de Calais and move the bulk of his troops there to rebuff the landings.
BP managed that and confirmed Hitler and his High Command had been hoodwinked. The Normandy landings went ahead and the rest is…
Just as you would want to experience, there are glimpses of the wartime ’40s everywhere at BP. Plus, it’s a really well thought out and intriguing museum. Remember to take your camera.
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