UK's National Museum of Computing celebrates 10 glorious years

Preserving Britain’s crucial contribution to IT

Expansion and evolution

What might in the past have been perceived as a old-fashioned reticence to engage with the realities of modern museum management, is likely to have been one cause of the Bletchley Park Trust’s past frustration with TNMoC as it itself has worked to become one of Britain’s premier visitor attractions.

It’s time, then, for TNMoC to evolve, just as hobbyists lashing up DIY computers in the 1970s moved up to mass-market machines in the early 1980s, and as university constructions like EDSAC eventually gave way to Britain’s commercial computer manufacturers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

TNMoC’s future depends on its ability to evolve with the changing times. Taylor and his team are very aware of this, but equally understand that they need to maintain the museum’s “ethic and ethos” too. The Museum has a solid history of hands-on exhibits, but business rigour is required too.

As Taylor admits, “it’s not possible to fund the museum from ticket sales alone”, and the new regime, under the guidance of the Museum’s seven trustees, Sale among them, is seeking to tackle that. “There’s a lot of work that goes in to getting that money to keep the place going, to fund new galleries, to fund storage, to keep the lights on – all the other things we have to do to stay in business,” adds Taylor. If you can’t afford to conserve Britain’s technology heritage, you can’t conserve Britain’s technology heritage.

New sources of sponsorship need to be sought out, and TNMoC is already establishing a successful sideline in providing companies large and small with team-building days. The challenge for one Cambridge-based hi-tech operation: learn to code the WITCH, and market your software to 1950s businesses.

Not that teaching a new generation about the story of the technology they take for granted has been set aside in favour of fee-paying corporates. “We have a large education programme,” says Taylor, a hat-tip to the efforts of the museum’s learning chief, Chris Monk. “What people might not know is that we have schools in pretty much every day. In this financial year, which is just about to end, we’ve had 4,500-5,000 students in. Education is a big part of what we are about.”

Expansion will allow the museum to bring to the fore more of the “several pantechnicons“ – as one volunteer puts it – full of kit that it currently lacks gallery space to show.

It also needs to more fully catalogue and document what it has, especially if ambitious notions to make much of its collection accessible to remote visitors via the net are to be realised.

This is where a growing membership can help, motivated by the new club’s goal of greater interaction between Museum and its closest individual supporters, says John Linford. “We want to arrange activities for members so that they can feel part of something. That has been lacking in the past, and we’re trying to change that. We want folks to be involved. Just because we have a volunteer organisation doesn’t mean we have all the resources that we need.”

To paraphrase American Express, TNMoC membership has its privileges: year-round free access to the museum as a visitor, but also access to its facilities, such as its library and document archive. There’s a cost, of course, but that remains the best way to support one of the few sites in the UK dedicated to describing the nation’s technology heritage.

Taylor and his colleagues are very complimentary about Britain’s other computing museums but, he says, “we do the best job of going all the way through the history of computing up to the present day and everything in between. And I think that to tell the story of computing, and the influence that the UK had on that story, is a very important one”.

Margaret Sale should have the last word: “When we set out way before 1994 to save the whole of Bletchley Park, it was to be a living memorial to all the work that went on here and to show how that had influenced the modern world.”

Bletchley Park is so important. But so too is a National Museum of Computing, and an "awful lot has happened since 1940".


The National Museum of Computing’s Members Club requires a donation of at least £45 to join. More details can be found here. ®

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