Shhh...Top Secret Exhibition Opens At Science Museum

Science Museum, South Kensington ★★★★☆

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Shhh...Top Secret Exhibition Opens At Science Museum Science Museum, South Kensington 4

Spy stuff. Code stuff. Some of it never seen by the public before. It's all on show at the Science Museum, if you can find the secret bunker.

Deep down beneath the Wellcome Wing, a smart and well-considered exhibition lifts the lid on Britain's codebreaking, past and present.

For something as intangible as electronic codes and cyber security, this sure is a handsome display. The first half looks at British codebreaking through the centuries — mostly the 20th. Themes are carefully divided into what can only be described as stage sets.

Walk into the green hut to learn about second world war codebreaking at Bletchley Park. Enter the shell of a Zeppelin to discover how that threat was detected and dealt with in the first world war. Step into the gaudily furnished home of Peter and Helen Kroger, the unassuming Ruislip couple at the heart of a 1950s Russian spy ring. You'd have thought the wall-mounted nuclear sub would have given it away.

But this is an exhibition of two clear halves, a dot and a dash, a one and a zero. After the historical introduction, we pass over to a section on the modern work of GCHQ. We learn about the intelligence agency's world-leading skills in surveillance, counter-terrorism and cyber security. It's all a bit of an advert, to be honest. I half expect a batch of cheerleaders to emerge from behind the server. "Give me a G. Give me a C. Give me and H. Now go get your gadgets from Q."

Parts from a quantum computer. Looks wonderfully steampunk for something so cutting edge.

The displays are sleek, bright and unexpectedly playful. A barrage of cyber-tech is sugar coated with stuffed toys, street art and even a Lego model of the agency's Cheltenham doughnut. The cyberfolk are clearly keen to show their human side.

Fear not, though. It's all deftly balanced with serious stuff about catching the baddies. Indeed, we get several glimpses of the times that intelligence and surveillance have failed — from the fascinating Zircon affair of the 1980s (be sure to watch the video) to the leaks of Edward Snowden. The Nazis' Enigma machine is inevitably on display, but so is the SG41 machine, which could not be cracked by Bletchley.

One of the laptops used by The Guardian to probe the leaks of Edward Snowden. Its contents were eventually destroyed under government pressure.

An exhibition about surveillance and secrets is necessarily going to elide more than provide. Even so, this is a humdinger of a free exhibition, whose many highlights will be leaked all over Instagram by the time you read this.

Dust from ground up computer parts... the eventual fate of sensitive equipment at GCHQ.

Top Secret: From Ciphers To Cyber Security is on at the Science Museum until 23 February 2020. Tickets are free but must be pre-booked. A series of events, including a Lates on 25 September, support the exhibition.

Last Updated 09 July 2019