Women of Britain – Come into the factories. So declared the 1941 recruitment poster which would help to take hundreds of thousands of women into the workplace during Would War II. Conscripted women could find themselves in a factory, working on the land or in the armed forces. While much of this work was initially safely in the territory of “women’s work” (cooks, orderlies, volunteer nurses etc.), as the shortage of men grew, more women found themselves operating heavy machinery, manning anti-aircraft guns and transporting planes. For the most part though, work was physical, leaving us to believe that the brains behind these operations were male.
Not so! Says Bletchley Park, with its major new exhibition, The Intelligence Factory. For the first time Bletchley has really gotten into the nitty gritty about how the huge codebreaking operation actually worked, and this was an operation powered by women.
Bletchley Park was one of the few intelligence-based opportunities for women during the war. Being recruited to work there could mean taking a crash course in reading and translating Japanese or making use of your lateral thinking and mathematics skills.
I had a longing to use my brain. To find out what the Germans were about and find some way of helping towards a defeat.Pauline Lee, Bletchley Park veteran
Having initially traded off Alan Turing’s name to draw in visitors (understandably so with The Imitation Game hitting cinemas in the same year that their first phase of restoration was completed), Bletchley Park is now seeking to show us that they’re about more than one man.
The nitty gritty they’re looking at in The Intelligence Factory is a rapidly growing workforce, which grew from 150 to 9,000 in a few years. 75% of this workforce were women.
History-based museums too often fail their visitors by lacking the little details that may be insignificant as part of the bigger picture but allow us to step through that picture and relate to it. Little details are also often the way to capture the attention of younger visitors – why was she only allowed to eat one slice of toast?! Bats were roosting in their dormitory?! The Intelligence Factory allows us to marvel at the sheer scale of the operation, from the personnel to the mechanics of working in the bustling huts. The phenomenal amount of index cards being generated and filed, the pneumatic tube system firing containers of paperwork (and sometimes frogs!) from office to office and the precarious ceiling conveyor belts carrying trays of paperwork along the corridors.
The Intelligence Factory impresses with its interactive offerings, and by interactive I don’t only mean pressing buttons on screens, although the interactive digital content is really well done. Rooms contain clipboards directing you to search index cards for information and there’s a really clever magnetic pegboard allowing you to take on the role of a Mapper, using strings and pegs to create diagrams.
As if this sprawling exhibition isn’t enough, the building also houses a temporary exhibition, The Art of Data, which is well worth a visit if you have children. All about the visualisation of data (aka porn for graphic designers), it highlights how easy it is to manipulate data visually to misrepresent the facts, something that’s so important to understand in this world of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Bletchley Park is easily a full-day visit, but if you’re looking to mix it up then don’t forget to look at the nearby antiques shops (see inside front cover) and check our fairs calendar.
Top Tip #1
Plan two visits (all tickets are valid for a year) – once on a quiet day to spend time in the exhibitions and once on an event day. The highlight of their events calendar is their super popular 1940s Weekend. It is two days when the whole site comes alive with dancing, shopping and re-enactments. This year’s 1940s Weekend will take place on 24th and 25th September. Advance booking is necessary.
Top Tip #2
Take a picnic. There’s loads of picnic benches or you could relax on the grass by the lake. There is an on-site café but like most museums, it isn’t cheap!
Top Tip #3
A photo mucking about with the Mansion’s griffin guard is compulsary. Well, my friends and I think so!