UK's National Museum of Computing celebrates 10 glorious years
Preserving Britain’s crucial contribution to IT
"They were all here in 1994 when we opened up this building as the exhibition area. It happened to be the first building that [former site owner] BT released and allowed us to come into," added Margaret.
Tony Sale chose the museum’s current rooms in the Bletchley Park, called Block H, because his research had identified the building as one of those that had originally housed the Colossi.
“The next marker was 2005,” says Margaret. That year, the TNMoC became an independent charity, separate from the Bletchley Park Trust.
“That was brought about simply because by that time we had got Colossus up and running and the hierarchy of Bletchley Park decided they wanted this particular building, and were going to have it demolished for yet more housing," says Margaret. "I’m afraid the team who started the computer museum along with the Colossus rebuild rebelled at that, and that’s when we became a separate entity.”
A two-year fight for the right to remain in the historic Block H followed, but eventually an agreement was reached that allowed TNMoC to continue to operate on trust property. “Most people think the computer museum started in 2007 when we started paying rent to Bletchley Park, but that’s only because it took us a long while to fight for the lease.”
Since then, the museum has expanded, building on its Colossus and Tunny codebreaking galleries with major mainframe and microcomputing sections and, more recently, the addition of the 1951 Harwell Dekatron WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell), the World’s oldest original working digital computer; a new, Google-sponsored Women in Computing gallery; the National Physics Lab-backed Internet gallery; sections on pre-electronic computational equipment and analogue computers; and now the EDSAC reconstruction project, an attempt to replicate Cambridge University’s ground-breaking stored-program computer, the first digital computer to provide computing as a service.
Meanwhile, the relationship between TNMoC and the trust, both with their own ideas about the story the Bletchley Park site should convey to its many visitors, has never been entirely easy.
What might be described as a Cold War between the two organisations warmed up early in 2014 as a result of an argument over access to Block H.
That spat, says Margaret, is “all behind us now”, and the museum’s efforts are now dedicated to establishing itself as a visitor destination in its own right, and to providing what newly installed Museum Director Derek Taylor calls a more professional experience.
If the fight with Bletchley Park told the TNMoC’s own trustees one thing, it was that it if wanted the museum to be considered a visitor attraction capable of matching the stature of its better-known neighbour, it was time that TNMoC grew up. Enter Taylor, who came on board this past December.
“The role I was asked to perform was to bring to the museum some better structure, better organisation, and to try and get us on a more stable financial footing,” he says. Taylor has already expanded the organisation’s administrative structure, taking on marketing manager Wendy James in January this year and expects soon to hire a full-time administrator to manage the day-to-day running of a major museum.
“We get loads of inquiries from schools and corporates,” says Taylor, “and we’ve just got to get better at the job of processing those in order to support the museum.”
TNMoC has done a good job preserving its collection, making those artifacts accessible to visitors and telling the story of British IT, but today’s museum professionals know that no matter how high the educational value of what they are showing, if their institutions are to prosper, they have to compete essentially as players in the entertainment business too.