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Gallery view of “Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security” at the Science and Industry museum
Gallery view of “Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security” at the Science and Industry museum

Top Secret – from ciphers to cyber security: Review

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Lorraine Worsley-Carter explores over 100 years of code-breaking and secret intelligence at The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester

I was delighted to read that the Science and Industry Museum had recently reopened its doors and was  giving a first look inside a major new exhibition, unveiling a world of secret communication. Last year I had booked to visit Bletchley Park where Alan Turing and the team at Bletchley Park, broke German ciphers systems in the 1940s. I was thwarted by that other secret enemy, Covid19, so I was very much looking forward to my visit to ‘Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security.’

The exhibition explores communications intelligence and cyber security over the course of 100 years. It has been curated by the Science Museum Group with the help of expert advisors at GCHQ – This timely exhibition will no doubt inspire security sleuths of the future in the North, especially as we now have the UK’s intelligence and cyber agency, GCHQ on our doorstep. Perhaps, like me, you were unaware that since 2019, GCHQ has a site in Heron House in Albert Square in the heart of Manchester’s city centre.

As I entered the Museum in order to visit this exhibition, I felt I looked a bit like a spy as I was of course ‘masked.’

Lorraine awaiting to uncover secrets at The Science and Industry Museum Manchester
Lorraine awaiting to uncover secrets at The Science and Industry Museum Manchester

The remarkable world of codebreaking, ciphers and secret communications is uncovered through extraordinary objects, interactive puzzles and first-person interviews. These artefacts are on loan from the historic collections of the Science Museum Group and GCHQ.

From the First World War to the latest in cyber security there is something which will no doubt  resonate for every age group. I particularly enjoyed reading fascinating stories from declassified files;  the fact that these documents had been handwritten decades ago, somehow brought the stories  alive for me.

Visitors begin their journey over a century ago, by exploring how Britain protected its skies during the First World War. From there, and for the first time at the exhibition’s run in Manchester, a collection of objects are displayed that track the remarkable work of Alan Turing and his Bletchley team.

Portrait of Alan Turing © National Physical Laboratory and Science Museum

I was particularly interested in the ingenious work of Alan Turing, whose story is intrinsically tied to Manchester. I was not disappointed, as his work was well showcased. These items include marketing materials featuring Turing for the Ferranti Mark 1 computer, one of world’s first commercially available digital computers, a delegates list with Turing’s name on it for the inaugural Manchester University Computing Machine Conference in 1951, and correspondence between Turing and Eric Jones, the then-director of GCHQ. It will also tell the story of Turing and the people at Bletchley Park who broke the German Enigma and Lorenz cipher systems, allowing the British to read some enemy messages – a breakthrough that had a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War.

The exhibition then drops visitors into the heart of Cold War Britain and uncovers how intelligence agencies and police foiled one of the most successful spy rings to operate during that time. I particularly loved this! I am aware that spies do not walk around with the word ‘spy’ tattooed on their forehead, however, the story of the husband and wife spy team and the spies associated with them, collectively known as the Portland Spy Ring, is material for a blockbuster film surely! Helen and Peter Kroger appeared as an ordinary Canadian couple living in an unremarkable London suburb in the early 60’s. This seemingly conventional couple were living undercover and smuggling top secret documents to the Soviet Union. I am afraid secrets must be kept and therefore I am not at liberty to divulge, you will have to visit the exhibition to unearth their fate, downfall or otherwise.

Enigma Machine

Among the 100 plus objects in the exhibition, many reveal fascinating historical stories of communications intelligence from the last century, there are cipher machines which were 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. Secure telephones that were at the cutting-edge of innovation played a crucial role for Britain during the Cold War. The Pickwick telephone was developed to keep transatlantic communication secure between John F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

By the 1980s secure telephone systems were portable, and visitors will be able to see Margaret Thatcher’s secure briefcase telephone, which was used to communicate the course of action to the British Ministry of Defense during the Falklands War in 1982.

Other exhibits also chart the more recent history of cyber security and the work of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which works to defend against cyber attacks in the 21st century. The exhibition enables visitors  to examine the challenges of maintaining digital security and how the new technologies of today have transformed how we communicate, bringing risks as well as opportunities. Visitors will be able to see a computer infected with the WannaCry ransomware which, in 2017, affected thousands of people and organisations, including the NHS. 

Sleuths in the making can also take their own tour around the exhibition with a specially designed trail to help uncover the remarkable people and stories in the exhibition, and which also reveals the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills in maintaining national security.

Sally MacDonald, Director of the Science and Industry Museum, told Quayslife: “After more than 27 weeks of closure during the latest lockdown, we are so excited to be welcoming visitors back soon. Museums provide a really important public service and are so important for our health and wellbeing. During a brief reopening between lockdowns last summer, we safely welcomed over 34,600 visitors, which shows just how much people want to get back and enjoy the physical experience of being in the museum. We have proven measures in place to safely welcoming visitors back, and I’m delighted that we’ll be doing this in just a matter of weeks.

“Our museum tells the stories of Manchester’s pioneering past and ideas that started here and went on to change the world. STEM skills have been at the heart of this innovation, and I’m delighted that we’re hosting Top Secret, which showcases the incredible heights that can be achieved through the application of these skills,at a time when the importance of STEM across the region is more important than ever.”

M209-B cipher machine © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, GCHQ.
M209-B cipher machine © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, GCHQ.

Jeremy Flemming, the Director of GCHQ, told us: “GCHQ has been at the heart of the nation’s security for over 100 years and to this day it gives the country a strategic edge – helping to protect the country, its people and our way of life.

“We want to give people from across the country a glimpse into our secret history, world-leading innovation and most of all brilliant people who continue to keep the country safe today. So I’m delighted Top Secret has now moved to Manchester where we recently opened a city centre office which is home to hundreds of our staff.

“At GCHQ we believe with the right mix of minds anything is possible. We hope Top Secret intrigues, excites and maybe even inspires the next generation of recruits from the area to consider a career with us.”

Photos of the Portland spy ring

As an added bonus for visitors, Top Secret is the first  exhibition to be hosted in the Science and Industry Museum’s new £5m Special Exhibitions Gallery set to originate and host some of the world’s best science experiences in the North.

Designed by award-winning architectural practice Carmody Groarke, working alongside Manchester building contractor HH Smith & Sons, the new gallery has transformed the lower ground floor of the museum’s Grade II listed New Warehouse to reveal grand industrial beauty with stunning modern and sustainable design.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to the exhibition and while it is free, a donation really helps to support the museum’s mission, which is to inspire all its visitors, including future scientists and inventors, with the story of how ideas can change the world, from the industrial revolution to today and beyond. 

Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security is at The Science and Industry Museum Manchester from 19 May to 31 August 2021. It is free, but booking is essential online via the website or by calling 033 0058 0058. Visitors will also need to book a general admission ticket.

Visitors are being asked to observe social distancing, wear face coverings, follow one-way routes and book tickets for both entry to the museum and exhibition in advance so that visitor capacity can be managed.

See website for details www.scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk.

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Written by
Lorraine Worsley-Carter

A resident of Salford Quays, Lorraine Worsley Carter received her MBE for Exceptional Services to Community and Broadcasting in 1998 and became a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester in 2008. She is Senior Partner of Countess Publicists. Her love of travel takes her near and far.

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Avatar photo Written by Lorraine Worsley-Carter