Hidden away on the Bletchley Park Estate in Milton Keynes, this quirky museum crammed with computers runs hands-on STEM workshops for kids in the holidays and at the weekends – and we love it.
Why visit The National Museum of Computing?
The National Museum of Computing houses the world’s biggest collection of working historic computers, all the way from the 1940s to today, and is widely considered the birthplace of modern computing. But you wouldn’t know it. Tucked away in an unassuming wartime hut on the Bletchley Park Estate, it’s about as far from a flashy technology hub as you can get – and it’s all the more atmospheric for it.
The first gallery you step in to is almost entirely filled with the Turing-Welchman Bombe – a behemoth used to break Enigma-enciphered messages in the Second World War. Open at the back to reveal its inner workings, it spews cables out like vermicelli, and my kids watched in open-mouthed silence as the thing ticked and whirred into action at the press of a button.
The Colossus, another codebreaking juggernaut built to decipher Hitler’s Lorenz-encrypted messages, had the same effect – my wide-eyed pair couldn’t understand why the world’s first programmable electronic computer didn’t have a screen. Block H of Bletchley Park – which is now the museum – was built in 1944 specifically to house Colossus. The one here now was rebuilt in exactly the same place as its World War II original, and it took 15 years, partly because all the top-secret circuit diagrams were deliberately burned.
Once the kids had finished looking around the wartime computers, I lost them somewhere between the room-sized computers of the 1980s and the retro PC gallery filled with flickering Amstrads, Ataris and Spectrums. For children who are used to smartphones and tablets, this chronology of computing is a real eye-opener.
STEM Bytes family weekends
What this place does so well with wartime computers, it does equally well with today’s technology thanks to two educational areas just beyond the galleries. This is where the museum hosts STEM Bytes – a programme of Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics workshops for families that runs every weekend and during school holidays.
Fresh from trying out codebreaking on a working Enigma machine, my eldest slipped on an Oculus Rift headset in the Innovation Hub and disappeared into a game of Minecraft in VR. My youngest, who’s five, settled into the BBC Classroom to play with Cubetto – a wooden robot that pootles around a mat depending on the route you’ve programmed – and another programmable robot called Sphero Mini. My children were at the younger end of the age bracket, and there were also activities for older kids including building and programming a robot with Lego Mindstorms and learning to code with a BBC micro:bit.
Everything else you need to know
There’s a small shop selling drinks and snacks with a few tables where you can eat – they’re not precious about bringing food from home. We ate packed lunches and bought a couple of cans of drink (£1.20) and biscuits (60p) and I spotted a small selection of pre-packed sandwiches in the fridge (£2.75). There are also souvenirs and gifts to buy – a mix of pocket-money items like branded pens (£1) and mugs (£5), as well as techy build-your-own kits around the £25 mark and books on computing and AI for children and adults. After a whiz around the shop we went back through the museum in reverse as the kids wanted a second look at everything.
How to get to The National Museum of Computing
Public transport is pretty good – the museum is only a five-minute walk from Bletchley Railway Station, and there’s a fast West Midlands Trains service from London Euston, which also calls at Milton Keynes. Turn right out of the station and you’ll see the entrance to Bletchley Park over the road. If you’re driving, use MK3 6DS for your Sat Nav. Go through the main Bletchley Park entrance then bear left and drive or walk up the slope until you reach the museum, which has its own car park.
Ticket prices and booking info
We paid £20 for a family ticket, which covers up to two adults and three children and includes all the STEM Bytes activities. Individually a day ticket is £7.50 per adult and £5 per child, plus a fee if you book online. Under-fives are free, although most of the activities are suited to school-aged children. If you think this is likely to become your new favourite place, annual tickets are only £15 per adult or £7 per child.
The National Museum of Computing is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10.30am until 5pm. Last admission 4.30pm. Drop-in STEM Bytes activities run every weekend and during school holidays.