Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. I was, and still am, fascinated by the various displays, from textiles and aerospace to transport, engineering, and beyond. Although the majority of the museum is currently closed for renovation work, me and Adam took a trip over a few weeks ago to visit the temporary exhibition, Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security.
This one had been at the top of my list since I first heard about it earlier in the year, and it marked the first time we’d visited a museum since summer 2020. The exhibition, curated by the Science Museum Group and supported by the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), features more than a century’s worth of declassified items and artefacts.
The exhibition starts with items from the First World War and takes us right up to the modern age. We began with a look at some of the early technology used to protect Britain during WW1, next moving on to WW2. This showcased the legendary work of Alan Turning and his team of wartime codebreakers at Bletchley Park, famed for their incredible work around the Enigma and Lorenz codes, and having a profound impact on the direction of the war.
There was the opportunity to get hands-on and take part in some interactive actives and codebreakers, but this area was already occupied by plenty of excited children so we skipped that. There was also a small section around secure communication throughout the decades, including the famous red phone from the Whitehouse, and technology used by Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, and Winston Churchill.
A highlight for me was learning about the two Russian spies. Morris and Lona Cohen, who lived uncover in England posing as a pair of Canadian bookshop owners, in the 1960s. The couple were eventually caught smuggling intelligence back to the Soviet Union from their modest home on the outskirts of London and later convicted of espionage. The exhibit showcased an array of intricate items that they’d once used to conceal and relay key evidence during the Cold War.
We then learned about the minefield of online data, digital security, and the evolution of the tools and STEM teams at GCHQ that continue to keep us safe in the modern day as technology continuously and rapidly evolves, and the ever-growing, complex threats that come along with that.
There was a laptop infected with the infamous WannaCry ransomware which caused havoc in 2017, toys fitted with ‘nannycams’ and a display showing how easy it can be to curate specific information that’s often mindlessly shared in the public domain. Due to the clandestine nature of the agency, we only get a tiny, albeit rare, glimpse into the work they do but it was certainly a fascinating insight regardless and one that touched upon my own curiosity.
Did you know that GCHQ recently opened a new site in Manchester? Me neither, and this revelation did send me spiraling down a cyber-rabbit hole after I visited their careers page. Although my current day job is in the not-so-secret communications sector, I concluded that I don’t quite have the calibre of knowledge, nor the problem-solving skills required to be a national security guru after all (I once cried out of pure frustration because I couldn’t work out how to do a sudoku puzzle).
I enjoyed the exhibition so much that I’ll be booking tickets for a second trip before they close on 31 August 2021. Although it’s free to enter, donations really do help to make a big difference to the museum. If you’re planning a visit, you’ll need to pre-book your spot and adhere to COVID guidelines; you can find out more here.