Fake feet, special matches, hidden radios, cameras in lipsticks, hairbrushes for camera film – not from James Bond, but from the real spies, and all on display for a few months before they go back into locked cupboards again.
This is the Imperial War Museum’s winter exhibition, looking at the spies who work in the shadows. Although spying has gone on ever since civilisation was formed, this exhibition is a collection of stories of spying over the past century or so, when it became more intense and modern.
So expect lots of stories from the two world wars, the Cold War, the troubles and a few modern stories of how the security services seek to prevent Islamist terrorism.
Of necessity, what the exhibition shows is just the tip of the iceberg, as no government will ever reveal what its spies get up to unless they have to, so the show is the public face of spycraft. Even with that limit, it’s a big exhibition, with over 150 objects on display and many stories on the walls telling the oft-times exceptionally hazardous work of people who knew that they could die, and often did die in service of their country.
It’s a well-designed exhibition, with a good mix of ohh, secret gadgets, and more mundane but far more useful documents. Loads of documents, reports on how British spies were tracking foreign spies, or sometimes, how their adversaries fooled them.
You’ll learn about a lot of fascinating people here, many of whom probably went to their deathbeds without telling anyone what they had done and never expected anyone to ever know. Here, their stories are told.
There is a good mix of signals intelligence and human intelligence on show, from surveillance photographs to uncover deception by the enemy to rooms full of people reading prisoner of war letters to check for secret codes in the text.
Some of the more fascinating examples on show are how deception is used, from the fake tanks that are used as decoys so that the enemy wastes munitions on them to how the Allies fooled the Germans as to where the D-Day invasion would take place.
As an exhibition, it comes right up to modern times, with examples of how MI5 has monitored terrorists in the UK – their evidence appearing in court became public and can now be included in this exhibition. More sobre though, the bulletproof(ish) jumper worn by a British spy when he was shot is a reminder of the dangers people working in the shadows face.
It’s an extensive exhibition; every time I thought I was coming to the end, I’d turn a corner, and there’s yet another room, and so on. That such an extensive collection is also free to visit is quite exceptional.
One thing, it was quite busy on my visit, and that meant queuing to read the signs at times. A larger font would have let people read the signs from further back.
It’s free to visit and can be found on the museum’s third floor.
No need to book tickets.