Under Covers: Documenting Spies

Cover illustration for William Le Queux

Cover illustration for an edition of William Le Queux, Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England, first published in 1909. 1919.6.197.

19 January - 3 July 2010
(closed 2-5 April inclusive)

Monday-Friday 09.00-18.00, Saturday 09.00-16.30, Sunday closed
Admission Free

If the essence of espionage is secrecy, then the most adroit spies are those who leave the fewest traces. But all human endeavours give rise to records of one kind or another, and intelligence-gathering is no exception. Whether in the form of messages passed between agents and officers in the course of their missions, reports prepared for politicians and military personnel on the basis of information received, exhortations to civilian populations to be aware of the need for security in time of war, or the legends, histories and news stories that have perennially surrounded the business of spying, documents survive which offer insights into the shadowy activity of covert surveillance.

Including recently declassified material, this exhibition draws on personal archives, printed books, official publicity material and specialist photographs and maps to illustrate a few of the ways in which spies have been documented. Exhibits encompass a twelfth-century manuscript recounting the story of King Alfred the Great entering the Danish camp disguised as a harpist; papers used by a parliamentary committee investigating the Atterbury Plot in the 1720s; a draft telegram from the MI6 chief in St Petersburg in 1916 sending news of Rasputin’s murder; and an autograph letter from Anthony Blunt telling how he was almost beaten up in Nazi Germany on account of his political views. The display concludes with a section on the use of aerial photography and mapping in espionage, including a Soviet military map of East Anglia from the Cold War era.