Bletchley Park, the codebreaking museum
During a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I had a couple of pilgrimages to make to museum destinations that have always held a fascination for me. One was conveniently near Oxford, where we were staying. Bletchley Park, the British home of the Allied codebreaking effort during the Second World War, was a mere 40-minute drive away. (Yeah, “mere” if you happen to live there and drive on the left every day.)
Many of you may be familiar with Bletchley Park, having seen The Imitation Game, the very good film about the Park’s star codebreaker, the great Alan Turing. Until the mid-1970s, Bletchley Park’s activities and all who contributed to them, including Turing, were deeply buried state secrets. However, with the secret declassified, much of the Park has been restored and opened to the public as an interpretive centre and museum. I was itching to go there. Risking serious complaint, I dragged my partner’s 11-year-old daughter along with me.
The interpretive centre in the formerly named Block C is a first-class bit of design. Every aspect of it is reminiscent of military buildings of the era, from the graphics to the light fixtures to the doors and even the washrooms. Here, you are given a basic overview of the reasons for Bletchley Park’s existence and its general efforts. The Park’s interpretation relies a lot on projected video, and the introductory film was shown on a number of surfaces in the first gallery. I could have trawled through the initial galleries for an hour or more, but with a child, I needed to move fairly quickly. However, the young one showed a quick interest in the concepts so I was able to blather at her about the German Enigma encoding machine and how it worked. Basically, it is a sort of typewriter with a set of wheels that, via electronic circuitry, change each letter typed into a different letter a number of times before the message is sent out in Morse code. To decode the message, the operator at the receiving end needs to know the position of the wheels on the sender’s machine. Sadly, despite my fascinating banter, my young companion’s eyes soon began to glaze over so it was time to head out and start the tour.
We each picked up a hand-held audio/video tour device (iPods), which really saved the day. Bletchley Park has produced a top-notch tour program for families (kids, really): a series of short black and white videos featuring a young woman playing a cheery and witty Bletchley staff member (the vast majority were women). She told the story of Bletchley and its culture in such a fun and charming manner that even I chose her over the adult program. When things got a bit dull for an eleven-year-old, as they frequently did, she could turn to her iPod to watch a video and solve the little cryptographic puzzles that followed each.
Bletchley Park’s grounds and the huts (simple, barracks-like buildings) housing each codebreaking section are a bit sparse and need to have the blank spaces filled with commentary and oral history. That’s why, when you visit, you really should go on a group tour or take the self-guided video tour. Much of the furniture and other contents of the huts are probably long lost. Most spaces feature a desk or two, file drawers and a cleverly projected video dramatizing what went on in those rooms. Nevertheless, apart from trying a few fun interactives, you can absorb the friendly but makeshift war-time atmosphere and get a sense of the purpose and drive of the Park’s inhabitants. You just need to wait for a break in the crowd flow for, even on an autumn weekday, the place was busy. And when you are outside wandering the grounds, keep your ears open for the atmospheric audio tracks playing throughout. I kept looking up to the sky at hearing what I knew to be the engine of a Second World War aircraft before I realized it was a recording.
The meat of the traditional museum experience is found in Block B. Here you will see vintage radio sets, encrypting teletype machines, more Enigma machines and a working reproduction of the “Bombe.” No, it isn’t a chocolate dessert or something you put in your bathtub. In a nutshell: the Bombe was a big machine that, in imitating the actions of a few dozen Enigma encoding machines, was used to help discover Enigma code settings. When codebreakers felt confident that they knew the German words corresponding to a line of coded characters, the Bombe would be wired up to mimic this combination. The multiple sets of three wheels would cycle though all possible combinations of positions until they hit on the combination that produced readable text from the coded text (I think). The final position of the Bombe’s rotor wheels would indicate the way the wheels of the Germans’ Enigma machine were set up and, after tests to determine a few other settings, all messages for that day could then be decoded. Anyway, a group of dedicated nerds built one of these machines from scratch and it works for real. They give demonstrations several times a day and, though a bit brain twisting, one is surely worth the time.
I could have happily spent all day at Bletchley Park, but at a minimum, you need to budget three hours. Take your lunch and have it by the pond at the manor house and listen for the train whistles and bike bells and the phantom aircraft of the Bletchley atmosphere.
Twice this past July, members of the museum planning team took the train to Montréal to have a look at some of the excellent museums there.
In one of my favourite cinematic moments, the 11 year-old chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, imagines sweeping the pieces off a chess board in order to help him think more clearly about an important game of chess. It is a championship game and he is on the brink of winning it all.
For the first time since they went into their cases in 1980, over 2000 coins, notes, beads and shells are coming back out. The Museum’s curatorial staff are busily pulling panels from cases, placing coins into specially prepared drawers and sliding notes into acid-free Mylar envelopes.
The doors were barely closed following Big Top Farewell event before Chief Curator Paul Berry and his team began emptying display cases that had been sealed shut since 1980. The biggest task involved removing more than 2500 bank notes from the room we knew as Gallery 8.
Another convention of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) wrapped up in July. This year the convention was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was the first time in over thirty years that the RCNA Convention made a stop there.
Before the museum closed for renovations on 2 July, technicians began to remove the heavier artifacts in late May. First to go was the strong box. Built of ¼” thick welded steel plates, this trunk was used by the Bank of Upper Canada in Toronto between 1821 and 1866.
Most of us know the first part of Alexander Graham Bell’s take on opportunity: “When one door closes, another one opens…” What we often don’t recall is the second half of that quote, where he says: “…but we so often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
It was farewell to the Currency Museum as we know it this past Canada Day. Our annual 1 July event was circus-themed this year, featuring children’s games, clowns, balloon sculptures and ice cream.
Summertime: a time to relax and, for most of us, to travel. Years ago, advertisers used to tell us how easy it was to travel: you only needed your bikini, your toothbrush and, naturally, a good travel agency to set you up anywhere in the world. That might still be true for people but for travelling exhibitions the packing process is a bit more involved.