Alan Turing & The Portrait Bench

I’m currently researching for a chapter on heritage trails and memorials/statues relating to the history of same-sex sexuality, which so far has taken me on several soggy but picturesque walks across London and Brighton. Yesterday I went in search of a statue of the widely recognised ‘gay icon’, Alan Turing. Turing is remembered as a pioneer of modern technology, code-breaker at Bletchley Park during WWII and as a victim of the state he worked for, who prosecuted him for homosexuality. The prosecution and his subsequent choice to take hormone therapy over imprisonment led to his supposed suicide in 1954.

Turing’s significance to British history is great on two separate parts: his contribution to the British war effort and technological advancement alone mark him as one of the great figures of the 21st Century; but his place as a persecuted homosexual man has an almost separate historical narrative. His tragic end marks for many the brutal way in which the British state dealt with homosexuality within living memory, and is an example of how history is used as politics today. Calls for a posthumous pardon for Turing are gaining momentum, not to mention press coverage, but in reality pardoning him would do nothing to change his legacy. It would also pose the problem of the many others who were prosecuted under the same act, regardless of their known contribution to British history. On the way to visit a memorial of Turing yesterday, I questioned which part of his life the statue would represent or discuss. Statues themselves have little room for explanation or interpretation, but I was curious as whether there would be a plaque explaining why there was a statue of him and which part of his legacy it would focus on.

The statue I went to visit is part of Sustrans’ Portrait Bench series, funded by the Big Lottery Fund that aims to deliver “new walking and cycling routes that bring the National Cycle Network into the heart of communities across the UK” by using public art (i.e. statues) that are relevant to particular local areas. The statues are steel and 2D, which makes them fairly unique aesthetically, and the aim is that they, with help of the great British weather, wear to a “fine rust surface” and “become a natural part of the landscape.” The project is a remarkable combination of public and community histories, as the statues were voted in by local residents – who chose their subjects based on their historical contribution to a particular area.

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The statue of Turing is located a 10 minute walk away from Paddington Station on St. Mary’s Terrace. He is joined by Mary Seacole and Michael Bond (and Paddington Bear) – all of whom lived locally at some point.

Paddington

The statues overlook a very busy road and back onto a residential area – but the bench next to them allows the visitor or passer-by to sit and reflect on them. As such their location does allow them to become part of the landscape of this particular area, but the bench also provided by the project sets space and time for interpretation.

The plaques on the bench are easily missed, but they serve as the interpretation and explanation to those who wish to know more. The two plaques on either side of the bench note the names and achievements of the subjects and point to where to find out more about them and the project. Turing’s note does not mention his homosexuality, prosecution or death, but instead describes him as “Father of computer science. WWII code-breaker who led alysis of the Enigma Machine.”

Sustrans

I thought Turing’s placement next to Seacole was a wonderful choice, as well as politically apt. Both of them are part of a hidden history – Turing in the history of same-sex sexuality and Seacole in Black history. Not that this is evident in either the statues or the interpretation, and would only be clear to the passer-by if they had prior knowledge of either subject. Statues and memorials, especially those that attempt to become part of the landscape, pose a problem as a form of public history. Without full interpretation they are pieces of art with no context, but it would be impractical to have an essay written nearby explaining their significance. Instead, the responsibility of full understanding of the subject falls into the hands of the public. They are provided with the names and a brief summary, as well as pointed in the direction of a website, and the role of researcher becomes their own. As I go on to visit more statues across the UK, including another of Turing in Manchester, I’ll be taking particular note of the role passed to a visitor or passer-by and the way that the public interact with statues as a form of history and a way to represent the past.

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4 thoughts on “Alan Turing & The Portrait Bench

  1. I love the design of the statues. It makes them belong in the landscape while the semi transparency represents how they have emerged from the past and are linked to the present.

    You are right about the dissected way we remember Alan Turing. Does it have to be like that? Is there some way we can succinctly remember him as a complete person? Art is probably the best way to do that. Poetry may also be an effective form.

    I like what you said about the responsibility and opportunity for each person to research something further. While we can feel very constrained in our representations of history to the public, if we spoon fed history it denies the public the joy of discovering for themselves, which is surely the best way of learning.

    • Thanks for your comment. They really are lovely statues – the project has them all over the country, but I haven’t had a chance to see any others yet.
      I agree – it’s a difficult balance to strike and one that I think makes Turing’s legacy most fascinating. I think the use of statues or art works well as it encourages the viewer/visitor to make up their own mind about the significance of the figure.

  2. Pingback: Listen Up! Songs for a Thesis | exploring public histories

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