The National Museum of Computing flings opens its non-virtual doors

Just don't expect to go mad fondling all those toys

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Retro computing fans rejoice! The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) has reopened its doors at Bletchley Park, England.

Home to an eclectic selection of computers, including a working reconstruction of the Turing-Welchman Bombe used to crack Enigma-enciphered messages and the rebuild of a Colossus electronic computer, the museum follows the development of computing from the 1940s through to the mainframes of the latter part of the twentieth century and on to the devices of today.

The doors were shuttered earlier this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling a halt to not only museum tours, but also its events programme. We spoke to the museum's Andrew Herbert and Peter Onion about ALGOL and its collection of Elliott computers back in May via the magic of video conferencing. In August, the museum threw open its doors in virtual fashion with a self-guided tour of its deserted corridors and buildings, replete with descriptions of the exhibits. We likened the experience to a particularly geeky game of Myst, which is no bad thing.

The virtual experience will be enhanced with a live curated tour given by an enthusiastic volunteer. Tickets for the virtual guided tour are in the range of £7.50 per person (for groups of 16) and are due to hit at the end of September. TNMOC also plans hands-on workshops via Google Classroom.

Those willing to risk a socially distanced visit to the place can now book a ticket online and pitch up at a predetermined time (50 tickets are to be made available per session.)

The experience is not quite the same – a one-way system is in force and poking at the working exhibits is currently not permitted throughout due to worries about contaminants on surfaces. The retro-gaming area is, however, up and running since the museum reckons the artefacts can be sanitised. Disposable gloves are on offer for the hands-on exhibitions and 3D printed face shields are available for those that want them.

The indefatigable volunteers will also be back to show off their pride and joys, although screens have been added to galleries that lack barriers.

It will be interesting to see how the hands-on experience works, since unfettered access was part of the joy, although restrictions are understandable. Other institutions featuring hands-on exhibits, such as Cambridge's Museum for Computing History, are facing similar challenges in pondering how to welcome visitors once again. ®

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