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El Reg visits two shrines to computing history as the UK lifts coronavirus lockdown
'Are they fearful of coming inside museums? There's a lot to consider, and I don't think we can offer any more'
Feature The National Museum of Computing and Centre for Computing History have finally reopened with the relaxing of coronavirus restrictions so The Register paid both a visit to see what had and had not changed.
The National Museum of Computing
The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) is located in Block H on the Bletchley Park estate, although the two are entirely separate entities. The museum features all manner of exotic hardware, from the 1940s up to the personal computers of today.
A rebuilt Colossus lurks within its walls, as does a reconstruction of the code-breaking Bombe. A Harwell Dekatron Computer resides in one room, while an Elliott (and other big metal) can be found in another. Much of the equipment on show functions, and volunteers are on hand to explain how it all works. In our case, those same volunteers also dispensed some life-saving clues on how to navigate Colossal Cave Adventure (played on a delightfully retro terminal).
Maintaining the "working" nature of the museum continues to present one of the greatest challenges since reopening in late May – how to preserve the interactivity without putting people at risk. The solution for TNMOC is hand sanitisers, masks, cleaning, and ensuring distance is maintained between volunteers, staff, and guests.
The system works pretty well. While direct fondling of a few components is not permitted, the key interaction with knowledgeable volunteers able to explain exactly how the Bombe works, for example, remains undiminished, even with the odd Perspex screen or face covering. Access to other attractions, such as the functioning home and personal computers lining the walls of another room, is unaffected.
However, visitor numbers have dropped off since the reopening (although schools are now booking for 2022), something director Jacqui Garrad finds frustrating. "Are they fearful of coming inside museums?" she wonders. "There's a lot to consider, and I don't think we can offer any more."
The museum would be set for a busy July and August under normal circumstances, particularly as UK citizens forgoing overseas holidays seek things to do with their little ones. "If visitor numbers pick up," observes Garrad, "we should be OK. If that doesn't happen…"
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Centre For Computing History
A short drive across the country to Cambridge brings us to the Centre For Computing History, another hands-on retro-computing experience that has reopened after the lengthy lockdown, but with a slightly different challenge to TNMOC.
How has it been going? "It's been brilliant!" says CEO and trustee Jason Fitzpatrick. "We've been looking at the figures, and they compare, not identical, fractionally down from 2019," which all sounds splendid until Fitzpatrick points out that the figures concern people visiting (like ourselves) rather than those attending events. The latter, which would normally account for half of the revenues, is down to zero.
"Because we haven't been doing the events, we're not getting those people. So it's kind of obvious. But that's a bit painful."
It's a shame because, like TNMOC, the museum has managed to reopen while still preserving much of its interactivity. Some exhibits, such as the Virtual Reality hardware, had to be put back into storage. However, the space has been filled by alternatives, such as the PlayStation 2 EyeToy, which is approaching the 20th anniversary of its launch.
Other exhibits – and much of the interactivity on display is in the form of home computers, PCs, and gaming systems from the 1970s onward – remain, now protected by plastic enclosures to allow for a swift wipe-down between sessions.
"That's working really well," says Fitzpatrick. "It's not really denting people's experience too much. People seem to appreciate the fact that we've gone that extra mile to do that and it allows us to protect the machines.
"These are duplicate machines, that's not the end of the world. But you still want to look after them. So we can wipe these down in a second rather than trying to get through all the keys and the rest of it."
Aside from a few gentle reminders regarding distancing, the museum otherwise is little changed. Enclosed areas, such as a partitioned space for games consoles, have marked entrance and exit points while other "rooms", such as the 1970s office (replete with a working Commodore PET 2001), operate a one-in-one-out policy for groups.
Events will be returning, with the first being an exhibit celebrating the World Wide Web to be set up in Cambridge's Grand Arcade. "We're going to have 15 computers of the era with 15 key websites of that era," says Fitzpatrick. The exhibition, starting from 26 July, will be found in one of the shopping centre's units, not far from an outlet of the exhibition sponsors, Raspberry Pi.
A daytrip to the computing past
It's all heartening stuff, and Register readers should take some credit for both institutions making it through 2020 and 2021 thanks to spreading the word or donating to the various campaigns that have helped to ensure the doors would open once again.
Making it to this point is, however, not the end of the battle for either museum and, with summer now stretching out before us all, we'd have to recommend a visit or two to both.
Both have, after all, gone to great lengths to maintain their respective experiences in the pandemic. And both feature veteran Elliott computers that were misbehaving while we were there. As for which Elliott had a fault seemingly only reproducible by opening and closing the cover, you'll have to find out for yourself. ®