Friday, 19 February 2010

Bletchley Park - a disappointment wrapped in Enigma.

We visited Bletchley Park yesterday. At the risk of diluting the purpose of this blog further than its already-homeopathic levels, here are a few thoughts.

My interest in BP, as they style themselves, was first piqued by the film Enigma, and from there to the book on which it was based (Robert Harris is now among my favourite authors). The Enigma code and its solution fascinated me, and its wider strategic context and influence equally so. I spent seven years at university studying maths of various kinds, and am a professional software engineer, so it is perhaps hardly surprising that I had invested time in understanding the rudiments of Enigma and the admirable cracking of it. I felt I was more clued-up than most BP visitors, but was hopeful of having some gaps in my understanding filled in.

Enigma is clearly BP's prime asset as an attraction. How then did they treat it? Pretty badly, to be frank. Little fragments of the story of its significance were dotted around the museum building almost at random, and mostly repeated each other. The main display pedestal for an original machine was empty. Little attempt was made to explain what it was and how the machine worked. About five separate places were the 'menus' for the 'bombes' (basically this is a script produced by a human cryptographer to feed to their proto-computers to crack that day's Enigma settings) explained. None of these explanations was, to my eye, comprehensible or interesting to an intelligent layman. I'm certain I didn't understand everything they were trying to say, and I was making a real effort - without wishing to sound arrogant, if I didn't, who would? We saw a reconstructed bombe, with only vague explanation as to how it actually helped to crack codes. Given the meagre summit of my education on which I now stand, this should have been an exhilarating view, but alas it was no more exciting than a big box with wires dangling out. I would dearly have loved to understand what this magnificent creation did, how, and why. Alas, I must rely on wikipedia.

On a broader level, BP is as much a museum to Enigma as it is to how museums were in the 1970s. Dated, dilapidated, disjointed, disorganised, disinteresting. I realise they are having funding problems, but that doesn't explain why what they already have is so carelessly and inadequately written. I've already mentioned repetition, but in one section we noticed two of their different printed text boards having exactly the same paragraphs of text, with different pictures. They were right next to each other. This is plainly sloppy and amateurish, however small the budget. There was a passage thrown at random about the war with Japan, with a very oblique reference to their having a nuclear weapons program, which was not expanded on or referred to at all. This would have been fascinating! In the middle of a floor about mostly cryptography and amateur radio listening stations (not a subject I understand in depth, or have any desire to), was a large collection of WW2 toys slapped in at random. After a while we gave up worrying whether we'd taken a wrong turn and missed the intended flow, because it was apparent that that was no such thing.

The museum shut promptly at 4pm, which we sadly weren't aware of, so we missed Hut 8. This is where the events in the film/book centre around - the battle of the Atlantic - and I was hoping they would give us some much-needed wider context, and most importantly a good story about Enigma. I doubt we'll bother to go back and fill in this gap. Our tour of the museum of computers was likewise curtailed. We saw the first genuine computer, with a total absence of explanation about how it worked, what it did, and what the lighted displays on it meant. I did enjoy their working BBC Micro - partly watching a 10-year old girl have no idea what to do with a command prompt, and partly by the nostalgia of entering the classic 10 PRINT "Karen smells "; 20 GOTO 10 program. Somehow I remembered that the semi-colon drops the carriage-return from the output - don't ask me why.

Credit where it is due, the BP story is an important one and deserves to be told. There is a lot of voluteerism happening there, and credit to them for giving up their time to this worthy cause. Any major building work would destroy the character of the war-time 'huts', and would be to its detriment. These comments on the museum should in no way detract from the awe and admiration I have for those who worked here during the war, and their unquestionably glorious achievements.

Despite my continued enthusiasm in the subject matter, on the whole my feelings are those of disappointment. To tie this back into my writing blog, my view that in any creation for an audience you must at once see the work from their point of view, and manipulate what you present to them so they go through the experience you want them to. Fail to do that and you are giving them what you want to give them instead of what you want them to have - and BP is proof of how big that gap is.

No comments: