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‘Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security’ at the Science Museum

Image credit: Jody Kingzett, Science Museum Group

Marking 100 years since the birth of the UK’s Intelligence, Security and Cyber agency GCHQ, the Science Museum’s latest exhibition takes you on a journey through the world of codebreaking, ciphers and secret communications, embarking on the transition from ciphers to cyber security.

The ‘Top Secret’ exhibition explores a century’s worth of communications intelligence through hand-written documents, declassified files and previously unseen artefacts from GCHQ’s collections and features stories that underpin secret and secure communications in the past, present and future.

Curator Liz Bruton (also an associate member of the IET), told E&T: “When GCHQ were thinking of plans for their centenary, they approached us and discussed plans to develop an exhibition that would not only be in connection with GCHQ’s centenary, but would also tell the wider story of a century of secret communications from the First World War through to the present day.”

The exhibition is located in the basement gallery of the Science Museum, where visitors may also catch a glimpse of the ‘Driverless: Who is in control?’ exhibition the floor above it as they walk towards the gallery. Seems rather fitting to have this particular exhibition in the basement, with “secret bunker” connotations of its location seemingly matching the purpose of the gallery.

“We have an introductory section which provides a timeline that orientates our visitors to the long history of codes and ciphers and secret communications,” said Bruton when asked about the structure of the exhibition.

Bruton also described how the exhibition is divided into three main sections. There is a historic section, where they have historic episode from secret telephones, then visitors move into an interview section, which Bruton said looks and feels different and is more thematically structured.

“The theme of concealing and revealing is something that happens throughout the exhibition,” Bruton unveiled.

Visitors will divulge into the secret messages exchanged in the trenches during the First World War. This section also includes networked telephones, courtesy of the Imperial War Museums, which were of vital importance for soldiers.

When you enter the exhibition, visitors can explore communications used during the First World War

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

Opposite the trenches section, handwritten codes and cipher systems, which were used by the military into the 1900s for messages that needed to be encrypted quickly, can be seen by visitors. Businesses, governments and the military, as well as ordinary civilians, used this method to keep messages short and costs down.

Not only does the exhibition have machines, it also has coding that is handwritten

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

The one artefact in the exhibition that may be of particular interest is the 5-UCO from 1943 (see below) which was one of the first electronic and unbreakable cipher machines – it is the first time this machine has been on public display. In fact, according to GCHQ, it was so secretive that all examples are believed to have been destroyed.

5-UCO: the first electronic and fully unbreakable cipher machine from the 1940s

Image credit: Science Museum Group

5-UCO was developed to handle the most secretive messages during the Second World War which included sending Bletchley Park’s decrypted Enigma messages to the British military in the field. It was used up to the end of the 1950s.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to explore the story of Alan Turing and the team of Bletchley Park codebreakers, who broke the Enigma code in 1941. In the Bletchley Park section, you will see one of the motorbikes used during the Second World War to dispatch intercepted messages to and from Bletchley Park.

It was the codebreakers of GCHQ at Bletchley Park who helped break the Germans’ Enigma code, as portrayed in the Oscar-winning 2014 film ‘The Imitation Game’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

During the Second World War, around 400 motorbikes came and went from Bletchley Park with messages that were intercepted

Image credit: Royal Signals Museum

A prototype of the Enigma cipher machine used by the Germans is on display at the exhibition too. The Enigma M1070 (see below) was used through the late 1920s and 1930s as it became apparent it would be the main encryption device used by the Germans during the war.

Enigma machine M1070

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

As well as over the 100 historical artefacts in the exhibition, dating back from the early 1900s, the gallery takes you through the decades of secret communications including secure telephones that were used during the Cold War.

The Pickwick telephone, developed to keep transatlantic communication secure between John F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, also features.

Pickwick phone

Image credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, GCHQ

Fast forward 40 years, and the exhibition takes you through the story of GCHQ today, how the agency was not acknowledged in law until 1994 and how – in recent years – it has been more open about what it does. Some of the secrets within the organisation are being revealed for the first time.

Model of the GCHQ headquarters

Image credit: GCHQ

But before divulging into GCHQ’s secrets in the modern age, there is an interactive zone that visitors can participate in. An interactive puzzle gives visitors the opportunity to test their own codebreaking skills and explore first-hand the skills required to succeed in the world of GCHQ.

“The puzzle zone consists of a lot of different analog manual puzzles that visitors can use to explore the qualities that are needed to make a good codebreaker,” said Bruton.

One of the cipher wheels on display inspires one of the interactive puzzles, where visitors can use the same technology to encrypt and decrypt their name.

Bruton describes the relationship between the Science Museum and GCHQ in creating this exhibition, saying that although there were limitations as to what they could tell them in terms of national security, they were very open, welcoming and knowledgeable partners.

“We’re very fortunate to have unique access to their historic collection and to be able to share that at this special exhibition,” she explained.

No more details on the rest of the exhibition, however, shall be disclosed. It is top secret, after all.

‘Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security’, a free exhibition at the Science Museum, London, opened 10 July 2019 and will run until 23 February 2020.

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