Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
I have recently started my Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA), a professional development award for the museums sector. For me this is an opportunity to focus on my own development and consider which areas of museums work I would like to learn more about.
Through my AMA I was given the opportunity to attend a study day at Bletchley Park coordinated by the South and East Museums Federation (SEMF). SEMF are an independent membership organisation for everyone who works in museums and galleries in the south and east of England. Part of their work is to organise visits like the one to Bletchley Park, providing the chance to learn from and network with colleagues across the region.
Everyone at Bletchley Park was hugely welcoming and during the visit we were fortunate to hear from different members of the team about the work that they do. Dr David Kenyon, Research Historian, gave us a tour of the site, explaining its past before WWII up until the present day. Heritage Lottery Funding in 2014 enabled Bletchley to restore parts of the Park and a new Restoration Masterplan will further develop and extend its offer to visitors.
As Bletchley has a minimal object collection it is the spaces and iconic hut buildings themselves which become the focus for telling the Park’s story. This requires quite a different approach from your average museum and something that could be very challenging, however, I think Bletchley have found interesting ways of tackling this. Whilst moving around the site we were startled to hear very loud low flying planes and revving motorbikes. Michael explained that these were part of a soundscape installed across the site – it’s a very simple but evocative way of recreating the atmosphere of the Park during WWII, and of making you feel part of the story. Equally immersive are the displays in huts, where the majority of the codebreaking work took place. Described by Michael as ‘set dressing’, WWII offices have been recreated with period furniture, papers on desks and coats hanging on pegs and thrown across chairs. You really feel like you’re stepping into an office that Alan Turing and colleagues have just stepped out of. This is enhanced by audio clips of people talking, typewriters tapping and chairs scraping; whilst life-size projections of WWII staff going about their daily work are beamed onto the hut walls so that you find yourself walking amongst them. More traditional display boards are also used to enhance this, along with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer front of house team.
We also met with Guy Revell, Museum Archivist, and were privileged to see some of the items in the archive collection from WWII. A highlight included an invite to a Christmas party and caricatures of staff members, which gave a sense of the social side of living and working at Bletchley during the War. Members of the Bletchley Park Education Team gave an overview of their schools and outreach programme which stretches across the country. All workshop students have the opportunity to use an enigma machine which we were also lucky enough to try out. I was particularly interested in Bletchely’s Cyber Security Project, which uses the codebreaking story to talk to young people about the need to be safe and aware online. It’s a great example of how to make history current, relevant and accessible to a wide range of young people.
Central to the mission of Bletchley are the human stories, which are evident when wandering around the site and listening to staff. Our last talk of the day came from Jonathan Burn, Bletchley’s Oral History Project Officer, who told us about the huge but fascinating task of collecting oral histories from those that lived and worked at the Park during WWII. It was lovely to hear how valued these individuals are by the Park today, and how their information is used to inform the displays and education sessions.
It is always a pleasure to have some time out of the office; to reflect on my work, be inspired by others and meet colleagues from across the sector. A huge thank you to SEMF for organising the day and to all at Bletchley for being so welcoming and generous with their time.
Jo McPhee, Programme Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums