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The secret world of codebreakers

Pickwick telephone (BID 160), 1960 – handset and base

The Irish World spoke to Dr Elizabeth Bruton, the Irish Curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum in London, who is at the heart of a new exhibition which unearthed previously classified and hidden objects relating to GCHQ, secret communications, and codebreaking.

As part of Top Secret: From cyphers to cybersecurity, a free exhibition at the Science Museum in London, Irish curator Dr Elizabeth Bruton was part of a team that negotiated unprecedented access to GCHQ’s (the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency) historical collections and to many of their staff.

“We have objects on display that have never been seen before; they’ve been declassified for our exhibition,” Bruton told the Irish World.

Though it was opened to commemorate GCHQ’s centenary, the exhibition explores the wider history of secret communications, codebreaking, and ciphers, from the early 21st century right up until the present day.

Among over 100 objects in the exhibition that reveal fascinating stories of communications intelligence and cybersecurity from the last century are cipher machines used during the Second World War, secure telephones of the type used by British Prime Ministers, and an encryption key used by Her Majesty The Queen.

Before taking up her position in the revered Science Museum in 2017, Dr Bruton worked in various museums and heritage organisations, following on from her studies — a PhD and a Master’s Degree — in the UK. She earned her primary undergraduate degree from Trinity College, Dublin.

“I came to the UK to do a one-year Masters — and fifteen years later, here I am still.”

The exhibition is divided into three main sections. There’s the Historic component, which deals with events leading from the First World War through to the mid-1980s, all where secret communications had an impact on the geopolitical landscape.

To engage visitors, Bruton helped oversee the Puzzle Zone, where visitors can get physical (and mental) with the basic principles of making and breaking code, whether it’s teamwork or pattern recognition.

Lastly, you’ll find the Contemporary section, examining how secret communications have been altered by modern phenomenon, including social media and mass communication.

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The exhibition, she explains, attempts to show how these developments have changed — and continue to transform — the communication and intelligence-gathering landscapes.

Why, when it really comes down to it, should people be interested in this exhibition?

“To encourage people to be excited about science, technology, engineering and maths,” Dr Bruton believes, “as it relates to secret communications and the new age of cyber-security that we live in today.”

Interestingly, given intelligence agencies’ reluctance to make public genuinely revelatory information, they provided Dr Bruton with massive levels of access.

“We definitely pushed them, to be able to tell stories that are really, really engaging, and to put objects on display,” she says.

“Because we’re a museum and they’re a secret intelligence agency, so there is sometimes a gap [in expectations] between the two. But they were great and they’ve allowed us to tell these really interesting and inspirational stories.”

Visitors to the exhibition will discover the story of the Lorenz machine: Mistakes made by a German radio operator while using such a machine enabled codebreakers in the UK to break the Enigma code, bringing the Allies one step closer to winning the war.

One of the other more fascinating objects displayed in the exhibition is the 5-UCO, one of the first electronic and fully unbreakable cipher machines, exhibited in public for the very first time.

The ultra-secret machine was developed to handle the most clandestine messages sent during the Second World War, including decrypting Enigma messages to the British military in the field. Up until the exhibition sourced their objects, it had been believed that all versions of 5-UCO were destroyed.

The computer which was infected with the WannaCry ransomware that, in 2017, affected thousands of people and organisations including the NHS, is also on display at the exhibition.


“The scale and scope of this exhibition is unlike anything I’ve worked on previously,” Dr Bruton says. “But also working with GCHQ, having the chance to visit their building in Cheltenham and go behind the scenes of their historical collection, is incredibly exciting.”

Recently, after three weeks of it being opened to the public, the exhibition passed 25,000 visitors, a sign of its burgeoning popularity. Because it’s free of charge, and viewed as the museum’s main blockbuster summer exhibition, this was largely expected.

Yet, Dr Bruton’s happy to report, “feedback from visitors across the board has been very positive”.

Maybe for the better, there are no Irish elements to exhibition. But it still offers people of all backgrounds something potentially mind-blowing, unquestionably educational.

As the exhibition draws to a close, the mystique is ramped up: A smaller section lurks around the corner called ‘Unknown’. Here, you’ll find a technically dazzling display of waste dust, presumed to be the charred remains of top-secret, classified electronic devices.

“We wanted to acknowledge that there was content that we couldn’t include,” Dr. Bruton adds.

“Although it offers unprecedented access to GCHQ’s collections, there were stories — for reasons of national security — that we cannot tell. We decided to represent it with dust, and we don’t know what the dust is.”

Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security runs at the Science Museum from 10 July 2019 to 23 February 2020. Tickets are free and can be booked online or at the museum.

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