Codebreakers and Groundbreakers

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I mentioned this upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in my last post – I’m very pleased to say that ‘Codebreakers and Groundbreakers‘ is now open (and on until February 2018)! The exhibition brings together two apparently quite different stories – the discovery and decipherment of the Linear B tablets and the breaking of the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during World War II – to emphasize the two main threads which connect them. Most obviously, both of them are about decipherment and making unreadable texts readable – whether that’s three-thousand-year-old clay tablets written in an undeciphered script and an unknown language, or messages that have been deliberately encrypted to (try to) stop them being read by a wartime enemy.

The other, less obvious, point of connection which this exhibition focuses on is that of collaboration. The decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, an architect, was made possible by the work of the archaeologists who discovered the tablets (Sir Arthur Evans, Carl Blegen) and the classicists who carried out much of the initial important research on the script (Emmett L. Bennett, Alice Kober); even Ventris’ publication of the decipherment was a collaboration with the Cambridge classical linguist John Chadwick. Similarly, Alan Turing was one of several thousand people working in various roles at Bletchley Park (mathematicians, linguists, engineers) all of whose contributions went towards the breaking of the Enigma codes – and, in inventing machines to break the codes, ultimately towards the development of modern computing.

The exhibition’s curators have put together a really impressive collection of objects, almost all of them loans – archival letters and documents from the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group in the Cambridge Classics Faculty, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Turing archive in King’s College Cambridge (Turing’s school report has been getting a lot of press!); an original Enigma machine from GCHQ; Linear B tablets, again mostly from the Ashmolean, plus one from the Fitz’s own collection; and (a personal favourite) the desk on which Ventris worked on the decipherment (from the Victoria & Albert Museum).

There’s also plenty of interactive elements – audio recordinP1090871gs of Ventris speaking about the decipherment and of his teacher speaking about his time at school; an app showing you how to read some Linear B tablets; code wheels and another app to try out decoding and writing your own secret messages; and a film explaining the workings of the Enigma machine and why it made breaking the codes so difficult. On the right is a picture of the friend I visited the exhibition with trying out the Linear B app! And of course there are loads of associated events for adults and kids – check out the exhibition webpage for a full list of talks, tours, and family activities – as well as a ‘Cambridge Codebreakers‘ game taking in four of the Cambridge museums as you try to  crack the secret code!

Finally, I should, of course, recommend a stop in the Fitzwilliam’s gift shop on your way out so you can pick up a copy of the exhibition catalogue (below) – I’ve written a chapter about the process of deciphering Linear B, and there are plenty of other interesting chapters about both Linear B and Bletchley Park, plus loads of nice pictures!P1090872

Edited to add: like all Fitzwilliam exhibitions, this is entirely free to visit! Although you might have to wait a little to get in as even on the second day it was open they were having to operate a one-in-one-out policy…

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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