Dr Elizabeth Bruton (codename ‘Liz’), Curator of the London Science Museum’s exhibition Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security and a former Oxford student with ‘links’ to Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, gave a revealing talk about her exhibition last night.
Once we had cleared security in Broad St by the simple expedient of giving an implausibly foreign sounding name and pretending to be Daily Information reviewers, we settled down to an hour of brainwashing designed to get us to visit the London exhibition.It worked.I came out saying, ‘It certainly does look fascinating and I for one will be hurrying there before it ends on 23rd February 2020’. My husband, made of sterner stuff, harboured doubts.
The Science Museum exhibition is part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters based in Cheltenham in a building shaped like a ring donut). The exhibition even features a Lego model of the ring donut designed and built by some of the GCHQ staff (using 17,000 standard Lego bricks in only 12 hours - yes, reassuring that the nation’s security is in skilled hands...) Liz explained that the logistical problems involved in moving it from GCHQ were solved by using an ‘air suspension’ vehicle. I believed her.
The Government Code and Cipher School apparently began at Bletchley Park in 1919, but later, as Liz explained, ‘they worried the name gave too much away so they changed it to GCHQ so that it sounded as though they were installing telephone lines’. (What, and nobody remembered the previous name?)
Liz showed us lots of pictures of complicated-looking gadgets. To be honest, she could have showed me anything with buttons and wires and I’d have been persuaded, though I was pretty sure the typewriter things were indeed Enigma machines. She was very excited about these, particularly since her team had gotten their hands on not one, not two, but three (!) and not only that, but they include one of only two Enigma Doubles in existence– reverse engineered Enigma machines made by Polish cryptographers during the war. She had also managed to procure a fire extinguisher previously stuffed with cocaine.
The exhibition is apparently organised into sections, starting at the First World War and ending up with some artwork- the Banksy protest wall which appeared in Cheltenham when Edward Snowden was arrested and a whirring thing which prints out tweets ‘in material form’ – just to show you how aware you need to be about cyber security.
Liz said her favourite thing was a petri dish full of dust from secret stuff ground up at GCHQ representing ‘the unknown’. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I preferred the stuff before it had been ground up.
Liz talked us through some fascinating history: The Babington Plot (where a double agent and ‘cryptanalist’ uncovered a plot against Elizabeth I), the 19th century Mazzini scandal (where the Post Office spied on Mazzini, who suspected and sent test letters to himself containing feathers and grains, which fell out when the post office employees opened his letters) and how the Germans intercepted telephone comms in the trenches before the British invented the ‘Fullerphone’.
Most interestingly, she revealed that the Top Secret exhibition has artefacts captured along with the Portland Spy Ring from the suburban bungalow in Ruislip where they based themselves whilst stealing secret documents from the Admiralty in the 50s and 60s.
Liz gave a lot away – I wasn’t sure whether I’d give her security clearance myself, but her exhibition does sound truly fascinating and I’d definitely recommend it on the basis of the talk.Not only that, but it’s free – go twice!