BLETCHLEY PARK, England – As a tourist site, Bletchley Park has been something of a well-kept secret. That’s because it was a government secret as well.
But the once-classified home of Britain’s World War II code-breakers is finally coming out of the shadows. Though eclipsed by attractions like the British Museum and Stonehenge, the museum at Bletchley Park expects a surge in visitors as a result of The Imitation Game, a movie about Alan Turing, a computer science pioneer and architect of the effort to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma cipher. The film starring Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
“It’s absolutely marvelous,” said Charlotte Webb, 91, who worked at Bletchley during the war.
“Our story has been revived.”
During the war, locals just didn’t ask questions about what went on at the one-time country estate. The code-breakers sworn to secrecy just didn’t talk.
The site’s importance remained secret until 1974, when wartime intelligence officer F.W. Winterbotham published The Ultra Secret about the effort to crack codes once thought unbreakable. It was only when documents about the program were declassified that Turing’s contributions became widely known.
His personal story ended tragically. Convicted in 1952 on a charge of “gross indecency” stemming from his relationship with another man, Turing was stripped of his security clearance and forced to take estrogen to neutralize his sex drive. He killed himself in 1954 at age 41.
Turing was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013.
The museum opened in 1994 after local historians banded together to prevent it from being bulldozed to build a supermarket. An 8 million pound ($12.2 million) renovation program completed last year made it possible to see the site as it was during the war – sparking a visiting by the former Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose grandmother – and grandmother’s twin sister – worked at Bletchley during the war.
For most tourists, however, Bletchley Park has remained something of an enigma itself. About 148,000 people visited the site in 2013, compared with 6.7 million for the British Museum and 1.24 million for Stonehenge.
Bletchley’s visitor count jumped almost 30 per cent last year following the broadcast of the The Bletchley Circle, an ITV series broadcast on PBS in the United States about female code-breakers who investigate crime.
Katherine Lynch, Bletchley’s spokeswoman, expects visitors to increase with the Oscar-nominated film’s success, particularly because the museum is less than an hour from London. The train station is literally across the road.
To capitalize on this, the museum has mounted an exhibition celebrating the film. It includes a sports coat worn by Cumberbatch, the bar used in a party scene and the film’s replica of Turing’s prototype Bombe machine, developed to help decode messages.
Also nearby is the National Museum of Computing. The museum, which has a separate entrance fee, picks up where The Imitation Game ends, linking the ultra-secret efforts of the 1940s to the mainframes of the 1960s and the rise of personal computing in the 1980s. It includes a functioning model of Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, which helped decipher messages between Hitler and his generals.
The Imitation Game introduces Bletchley Park to Cumberbatch fans, computer geeks and war buffs, said Michael Smith, a museum trustee and author of The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories.
Although he has some quibbles about the details of the film, Smith said he hopes moviegoers who were entertained will be inspired to visit and find out about the code-breakers.
“They will do the learning there,” he said.
The museum seeks to transport patrons back to the years when Turing and his colleagues worked around the clock to hasten the end of the war.
Inside the code-breakers’ buildings, the midday sun disappears behind blackout curtains. Ruffled pads of paper stamped with the British crown await a scribbling pencil. Sweaters are draped over chairs as if one of the workers, many of them members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service or “Wrens,” had just gone for tea.
Visitors can see Turing’s office, complete with the coffee cup chained to a radiator and poster of Winston Churchill urging his country: “Let us go forward together.” The furnishings aren’t originals – they would be behind glass cases otherwise. But somehow the lack of ropes or glass to hold visitors back makes it more intimate and personal – as if the war ended and things were just frozen in place.
On the lawn, loudspeakers re-create the roar of a dispatch motorbike and the drone of a Spitfire overhead. The sounds illustrate the backdrop of bustle and tension faced by the 8,500 people who worked at Bletchley Park, and the 2,000 others at surrounding outstations.
For a moment, it’s possible to pretend. It’s 1940. Britain is at war. Churchill is the prime minister. Much is at stake.
“You aren’t just at a museum about something, you are where it happened,” Lynch said. “We hope you step back into the 1940s.”