Resurrected heroes

Simon Stephens, 27.06.2012
How museums are marking the legacy of two forgotten geniuses
London Transport Museum’s Mind the Map exhibition combines some beautiful items from the museum’s collection, contemporary art commissions and public participation.

I visited it earlier this week to research an article about how museums use maps and found that it covers a lot of ground, taking in themes of identity, journeys and people’s sense of place. But at its core is just one thing, the tube map created by Harry Beck, whose 1931 design is effectively the one we still use today.

There are fantastic works by figures such as MacDonald Gill (the younger brother of sculptor Eric Gill) who designed posters and maps for the underground from 1913 until 1932.

But it is Beck who is the main figure, as his diagrammatic map of the tube is shown to be the inspiration for a huge range of publicity material, merchandising and contemporary art. These include many of the tube map cover designs created by artists such as Richard Long, David Shrigley and Cornelia Parker as part of the Art on the Underground programme.

What is remarkable about Beck’s design is that London Underground was initially skeptical about it. And he was still under-appreciated even after his map had been in circulation for many years. It took someone born outside the UK to point out his genius, as the exhibition highlights in a quote.

“I turned my attention to the greatest of all civilities, the London Underground map,” wrote the American writer Bill Bryson in his 1995 book Notes From A Small Island. “What a piece of perfection it is, created by a forgotten hero named Harry Beck.”

Beck is certainly far better remembered now, as is another figure featuring heavily in exhibitions this year: the computer scientist Alan Turing.

Turing was among those involved in wartime codebreaking at Bletchley Park and his influence on computing is still felt today.

But Turing was gay and he was convicted of what was described as “gross indecency” in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK. Faced with the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration (treatment with female sex hormones), he chose the latter. In 1954 he was found dead with cyanide poisoning.

For many years he was a largely forgotten figure, but this slowly started to change. In 2009, the then prime minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to the late Turing and paid tribute to his work.

This year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, has given museums the chance to pay their own tributes.

The Science Museum opened Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy on 21 June. And Bletchley Park’s Turing exhibition was on the ten-strong Art Fund Prize longlist.

Turing came to the University of Manchester in 1948 to work on the development of computers and three venues in the city have staged events dedicated to him.

Manchester Museum’s Turing exhibition opened in March and runs until 18 November.

The Cornerhouse arts centre screened a film about his life by AL and AL on 23 June and the Museum of Science and Industry (MoSI) has been asking digital artists to interpret Turing’s sunflower code. The results of their work will be presented at the Manchester Science Festival, which starts on 27 October.

Museums are among those making sure that the legacy of Beck and Turing lives on.

My article about how museums display maps will appear in the July/August issue of Museums Journal.