It’s surely impossible to put on a bad exhibition about Alan Turing. This is a man of many parts, both brilliant and tragic: mathematical genius, uncelebrated war hero, persecuted homosexual, codebreaker, athlete, computer and AI pioneer, sometime biologist and probable suicide at the age of 41. The Science Museum’s new exhibition glimpses all of these facets while dwelling at length on none.
Very little is presented about Turing’s formative years, save for the touching correspondence relating to the death of his deeply loved childhood friend. We’re otherwise launched right into a fully-formed Turing, cracking German codes at Bletchley Park, and planning the first big computer at the National Physical Laboratory.
Video testimony by those who worked with Turing paints a picture of a sometimes difficult, “almost loveable” man, often depressed, whose mind ran quicker than those around him. His ability to fire in multiple directions is reflected in the exhibition layout, which seems to have no beginning or end and invites you to dip in randomly.
The displays are as much about the technologies as the man who inspired them. In one corner sits the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), initially designed by Turing but completed by others to a smaller scale. This primitive computer yielded immediate and diverse results. Dororthy Hodgkin used it to work out the structures of vitamin B12 and insulin, and it also helped air crash investigators understand why Comet aircraft kept falling from the skies. Wreckage from one such crash is on display. Elsewhere a bank of Enigma machines stand like sinister typewriters, while a light-sensitive robot loiters near its cyber-kennel.
In an exhibition filled with thought-provoking objects, perhaps the most poignant is the jar of hormone pills, forced upon Turing by a State that still saw homosexuality as a deviant condition that needed curing or containing.
Designed by Nissen Richards Studio, the overall exhibition is a haphazard game of hopscotch, with objects and ideas strewn randomly around the room. This magpie-like curation feels like a good way to reflect a versatile man who straddled fields from chemistry to computing to biology. We just wish the show was four times larger, this being his centenary. Still, there’s always Bletchley Park to visit, for anyone wanting more.
Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life And Legacy runs at the Science Museum until 31 July 2013.