The National Cryptologic Museum

The only people who can get near the imposing, shiny-black National Security Agency in Fort Meade, MD are wearing suits and security clearances. But if you go beyond  National Vigilance Park and the Shell station, you can enter the Agency’s “principal gateway to the public” —  the National Cryptologic Museum.

The museum is housed in this converted motor hotel. When I first saw it, its 70s-era orange and brown accents reminded me of my old public school. Sure enough,  it also smelled like my old public school: that unmistakable musty government smell.  As it turns out, the National Cryptologic is less a gateway to the NSA than, well, perhaps a kiosk?

According to a recent article in Wired, NSA is  spending $2 billion on what the author of the article calls “The Country’s Biggest Spy Center” — a center that will have unprecedented abilities to do God-knows-what. Public education is not an Agency priority — its job is is not to broadcast, but to receive information. So the museum’s curator, Patrick Weadon, does what he can with donations and fund raising from events like the annual Eagle Alliance golf tournament.

Weadon is tall and  ingratiating.  He seems to love his job and the Museum. Some might prefer the National Spy Museum in DC, he says, with its Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not glitz, $20 plus price tag, and interactive gimmicks. But compared with the Spy Museum, he says, the National Crypotologic Museum is “like NPR.” The museum has three goals, says Weadon: the first is to recognize the heroes of cryptology, who often by the nature of their work go unacknowledged. Another goal is to make the public appreciate government codemaking and codebreaking. The third —  this inspires Weadon’s personal passion and many sports metaphors — is to show how cleverness  can make or break a nation.  From a Jeffersonian cipher wheel to the first Cray supercomputer, the museum demonstrates how math, science and technology can defeat one’s adversaries and “win the game.”

To me, a large part of the appeal of the National Cryptologic Museum is that it is actually hiding something. When you walk into converted-motel lobby, the first image at eye-level is a bold sign warning NSA visitors and employees not to talk about anything CLASSIFIED. Only former NSA employees are allowed to work there, Weadon told me — not just because they are knowledgable, but because they know what they can and can’t say. The exhibits are arranged loosely by war: Civil War, WWI and WWII, Korean and Vietnam War, Cold War. The most current exhibit dates to 1993.  Most recent technologies are, you guessed it. Classified. He said he “couldn’t comment” on the spy center mentioned in Wired.

What counts as “code” in the museum is a loosely defined, including everything from symbolic patchwork quilts thought to have guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, to the signals hobos once used to mark welcoming homes.  There’s a soiled silk scarf, covered in minute writing, which ostensibly helped a soldier receive or send messages in enemy territory, and a deck of playing cards that’s been converted to a cipher. I liked the eclectic collection, because it helped me relate simple examples of encryption to the vastly more complicated computerized encryption they later inspired. As I walked through the maze of rooms, however, the amount of information and objects became dizzying.  The informational placards beside the displays, with their tiny font, were almost like encrypted messages themselves. The whole place felt outdated, particularly the lonely VCR machines running documentary films as a gesture toward something “interactive.” And although the one-sided presentation of controversial topics like biometrics and domestic spying wasn’t surprising, it was mind-numbing.

The saving grace of my visit was the museum docent. Proper in her silk blouse and pearls, her explanations tied the exhibits together conceptually. She introduced the concept of the “key” with the simplest kind of encryption, a cipher wheel, and slowly built on that  idea with more sophisticated ways of hiding messages in code.

The highlight of her tour was the original  Enigma encryption device that the Nazis used during WWII to communicate maneuvers and strategy. The museum has an assortment of them, two of which you can actually use. It looks like a typewriter, but its keys are wired to a series of discs arranged along a spindle.  When you press a key, a signal passes through the rotors and back. At every step, the rotors move, and the original letter is substituted for another letter, then another, and another…. In one of the Enigma’s advanced iterations, the number of ways that pairs of letters could be interchanged was 150 trillion.

Of all the displays, I thought the Enigma did the best job of accomplishing the Museum’s goals: celebrating heroes, generating enthusiasm (rather than, ahem, suspicion) about government spying, and inspiring young people to learn about math and science for national defense. A panel about Alan Turing, the British mathematician considered by many to be the father of the modern computer, explained how he helped break Enigma’s code and win the war. Not-so-subtly, it linked fighting Nazis to the U.S. government’s current quest to build omniscient supercomputers. And it was surely educational. As  my group approached the machines, a tow-headed little boy wearing camouflage pants was sitting on the floor and struggling to encode, then decode, his name using the machine. The docent stepped in to explain and help. Slowly, he worked it out, revealing MATTHEW. A spy enthusiast was born.