Technology and Human Stories Intersect at the International Spy Museum

Technology and Human Stories Intersect at the International Spy Museum

January 18, 2021 • Caitlin Mattingly

The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. is a private non-profit museum dedicated to the tradecraft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. It boasts the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on public display, and says “The Museum’s mission is to educate the public about espionage and intelligence in an engaging way. It provides a context for understanding the important role intelligence has played in history and continues to play today.”

Our guest today is Andrew Hammond, historian and curator of the International Spy Museum. He shares his perspective on the importance of physical artifacts, and how presenting them to the public with meaningful context can help us understand our history and give us insights on how the past may inform our future.

This podcast was produced in partnership with the CyberWire.

For those of you who’d prefer to read, here’s the transcript:

This is Recorded Future, inside threat intelligence for cybersecurity.

Dave Bittner:

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 192 of the Recorded Future podcast. I’m Dave Bittner from the CyberWire.

The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. is a private non-profit museum dedicated to the tradecraft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. It boasts the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on public display, and says “The Museum’s mission is to educate the public about espionage and intelligence in an engaging way. It provides a context for understanding the important role intelligence has played in history and continues to play today.”

Our guest today is Andrew Hammond, Historian and Curator of the International Spy Museum. He shares his perspective on the importance of physical artifacts, and how presenting them to the public with meaningful context can help us understand our history and give us insights on how the past may inform our future. Stay with us.

Andrew Hammond:

I think my story really begins, the story that led me to the International Spy Museum, I think it really begins on 9/11. So on the day of 9/11 I was in the Royal Air Force. I was on a photographic intelligence unit. A friend came and said, “You have to see what’s happening.” I was kind of irritated, I thought it was going to be some banal thing on TV or something but we heard the news running all the time and the North Tower had been struck and we watched the TV and then the South Tower was struck.

So I guess it really brought home to me that I felt like an actor in a play, but I did not really understand what the plot was. So I guess in one way or another, ever since then, I’ve been trying to work out what the plot was. So ultimately that led me to leave the Royal Air Force in 2005 and go back to school. And really since then, the past 15 years have been bouncing around between academia, libraries, and museums, and I’m very pleased and thrilled to be now at the International Spy Museum.

Dave Bittner:

And so what course of study prepares you for what you’re doing today?

Andrew Hammond:

Yeah, it’s a good question. I think the first thing that I thought to myself was okay, so if I want to understand the plot, what’s the best way to do it? So that led me to study International Relations and Modern History. So those are the two subjects that I really picked up and ran with. And I guess I try to just read as broadly and as widely as I could just to try to get a better sense of my own place in historical time. And on that journey, I think one of the things that I found really fascinating, it was still developing when I was in the military, but the role that computing and cyber plays in the modern world. So that’s a side interest of mine. But yeah, I guess international relations and history to directly answer your question.

Dave Bittner:

And so what was the direct path that brought you to the Spy Museum itself?

Andrew Hammond:

So I came to … I had been living up in New York. I spent a couple of years at the 9/11 Museum and NYU. I was back in the U.K. for a bit and then I came to D.C. again for a fellowship at the Library of Congress. And it was from there that the job came available at Spy. And I just seemed to tick all the boxes. So I threw my hat in the ring and after nine months and around seven different interviews, I’m thankful and glad that they landed upon me. And that’s why I’m here.

Dave Bittner:

Well, for those who may not be familiar with the International Spy Museum, can you give us a little bit of the background and the mission of the museum itself?

Andrew Hammond:

Yeah. So the background of the museum is it started around 20 years ago. Recently, 2019, we moved to a brand new building on L’Enfant Plaza down near the river here in D.C. We tripled our exhibition space. We have around 9,000 objects, I believe. And we basically try to educate an international audience on the world of intelligence and espionage, so we do this in a number of different ways. We do it through our exhibits. People can come in and go through our exhibition space through the artifacts obviously, where they can get to see some of the cool things that they may recognize from popular culture or from reading the news and also through a podcast and our educational programs. So since coming to Spy, I’ve taken over the podcast SpyCast, and I’m trying to develop the programming and my own way to align with the museum’s broader mission to educate the public about intelligence and espionage.

Dave Bittner:

Yeah, I have to say for me personally Washington, D.C., there’s certainly no shortage of museums. And one of the challenges I suppose you face at the Spy Museum is there’s no shortage of free museums. So you really have to make a compelling case for people to come in and spend a few dollars to make their way through the Spy Museum. And one of the ways you do that is by making it a very interactive experience.

Andrew Hammond:

Absolutely, I came to the museum after it had moved to the new building, but after lots of discussions with people that were involved and conceptualizing the new museum, so much work and so much thought has gone into A, trying to educate the public and B, trying to do it in a way that is going to lead them to engage with the material and hopefully walk away asking some questions. But you’re right, D.C. as … I love going to museums in the whole country, this is probably the capital city of free museums. So we have to operate within that environment. But I think that we do have a good value proposition with our collection. And I think people recognize that we’re trying to do good work and we’re trying to do it for all the good non-profit reasons.

Dave Bittner:

Well, let’s go through some of the ways that the Spy Museum takes us through the history of cybersecurity specifically, the intersection of those two things. I mean, how far back does it go?

Andrew Hammond:

I suppose it depends on how we want to look at cyber. We’ve got stuff that looks at codes, cryptography, steganography that goes back into the mists of time. If we want to think about the more modern era, we’ve got a four-rotor Enigma machine and we’ve got an exhibition quite a bit of which looks at the story of Alan Turing. And I think for me I’m quite interested in Turing and his story and his paper on computable numbers, I think it’s from 1936. It depends on who you ask and obviously there’s many people that led to the birth of modern computing, but I think that he’s an important figure in that. So we’ll look at his story.

I think if we’re just thinking about cyber in a super modern sense, we’ve got a shard from the Aurora Generator Test in 2007, which is actually one of my favorite objects in the museum, I get really excited about it. And people just look at it and they’re like, “It’s a piece of metal,” what’s the interest? So on one level, I think with museums a piece of metal is a piece of metal but it’s the story behind it that I think this is fascinating. So I’m sure some of your listeners know this, but the Aurora Generator Test, it was looking at how a cyberattack could affect physical components. And essentially, although I’m not an expert in this, it busily interrupted the electrical current to throw the current off and it started getting increasingly violent until it exploded.

So we have a shard from that test. And I think that this is just an example of how these artifacts can tell a bigger story because in the whole history of humanity we’ve been going down a certain path. But I think that that generator test was a turning of the corner. Now we can use the zeros and ones to blow up a generator to attack a nuclear program to potentially, who knows what, to stop someone’s pacemaker, to launch nuclear missiles. I think there’s a lot that turns on that object and I find that really fascinating.

Dave Bittner:

It strikes me that the value of being able to stand in front of an object to actually cast your gaze on a physical object that has its own history. And I think about things like, right now we’re in the midst of a debate over encryption. And I think if you ask someone to describe encryption in their mind it’s hard to do when you’re just thinking about ones and zeros. But the ability to come in and stand in front of an Enigma machine, for example, to me that really brings it home to have the historical aspect of it. But also to have encryption personified there by a mechanical machine that led to the things that we’re still debating today.

Andrew Hammond:

Absolutely. And obviously that was part of the reason why I work there. But to me I just get in front of these objects and my mind just starts firing off in lots of different directions. And there’s lots of threads that you can pull upon but it can be a learning experience. You’re there in front of the object, it brings it home, it brings something that can be quite abstract down to earth and it brings it within our sphere of understanding.

So when you’re there looking at an Enigma machine and you get a sense of how the signals were sent through the machine in some ways that’s part of the debates that are taking place today just around encryption and around the role that they’re going to play in international security. Because let’s be honest, like part of the stakes and all of this can potentially be war or peace, it can be people’s lives. So I think it’s really important to get our heads around. And I think that objects can be a great way to help people understand them.

Dave Bittner:

And it’s not just the objects. I mean, you all spend a good amount of time telling the stories of the people who were involved in this as well.

Andrew Hammond:

Absolutely. And I think that interaction is one of the things that I am really fascinated by. So we’ve got the objects but the objects are … If you want to think of the objects like stars, so stars in the night sky, but as curators, as museum professionals, we try to form meaningful constellations. And those usually center around a human being or a collection of human beings. So as soon as you go into the museum, as soon as you go into the exhibition space you’re confronted with half a dozen human stories. So some people are more into the technologist side of our museum. Some people are more into the artifacts. Some people are more into the personal stories, but when you unite all of them together and link it up to a bigger historical panorama, I think it’s quite powerful.

Dave Bittner:

Can you take us through some of what goes into the storytelling elements in a museum like yours? I mean, I’m thinking about the actual configuration of the space as you make your way through the museum, there are large spaces and sometimes you get drawn into a smaller space and a different kind of story can be told in there. It seems to me like there’s been a real deliberate process as you make your way through that journey being placed in different environments along the way.

Andrew Hammond:

Yeah. And that was part of the thought that went into the museum. And I think this is something that museums are thinking a lot more about now about the interaction of physical space and learning. So for example, there’s one part of the museum that’s intentionally a little bit like a maze, it’s when you go into covert action. And some of the thinking behind that is that with covert action, you never know when someone’s had their thumb on the scale. You never know when something is … An agency has been involved at plausible deniability, all that good stuff.

So there’s intention behind the way that visitors interact with that space. But then other parts you open up into a more open room where there’s just more room to breathe. So we’re trying to lead, we’re trying to take guests by the hand and lead them through the space but still leave them with enough latitude so that they can make their own journey through the space. So we try to guide them but we try to leave them room to curate their own experience, really.

Dave Bittner:

How do you strike the balance between the historical objects, the historical stories and current events, still being able to tie into things that are going on today?

Andrew Hammond:

Yeah, I think that’s a good question. A lot of our collection comes from the Cold War or it comes from the past century. So with that it’s very easy to reach back and make the connections. I think we could be just a history museum, but I think we’re also educating people so that they can better understand the world in which they’re engaging and which they’re involved on a daily basis. So I think part of that is not just an esoteric, here’s what happened 2000 years ago, it’s, here’s some of the stuff that happened and here’s how it can also help us think about the world around us. So I think that we’re not an art museum, we’re a history museum. But I think any history museum brings contemporary debates and brings contemporary social and cultural mores to bear on what human beings have done in the past.

Dave Bittner:

What do you hope your visitors take away from an experience at the Spy Museum? How do you hope that it affects them?

Andrew Hammond:

I’m going to answer this personally because we have a museum mission, which you can look up. I think for me personally, what I want people to walk away with is a really interesting and formative experience. But hopefully with a few questions, hopefully with a few leads that they want to follow up, or maybe it’s something that they know of but they just understand it now in a deeper way. So for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis, so we’ve got a whole thing on that, you can go in and can look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I think I want them to walk away more educated. And some of these events, I think I want them to walk away with some questions and also just, I think I want them to walk away happy and raving to their friends about some of the cool things that they can see and do at the International Spy Museum.

Dave Bittner:

But still hungry for more.

Andrew Hammond:

Exactly. But still hungry for more. Yeah, my background is in education, I guess, before I was … Sense of being in the military. So I’m just really passionate about the past and I’m really passionate about these objects. And I just want to share that passion with people. And if I can do that in a little bit of a way, that’s going to make them come back, that’s going to make them buy books in our bookstore or listen to our podcast then I’ve done my job.

Dave Bittner:

Our thanks to Andrew Hammond from the International Spy Museum for joining us. A personal note, if you find yourself in Washington, D.C., do pay a visit to the museum. It is a lot of fun and you will learn a lot.

Don’t forget to sign up for the Recorded Future Cyber Daily email, where every day you’ll receive the top results for trending technical indicators that are crossing the web, cyber news, targeted industries, threat actors, exploited vulnerabilities, malware, suspicious IP addresses, and much more. You can find that at recordedfuture.com/intel.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the show and that you’ll subscribe and help spread the word among your colleagues and online. The Recorded Future podcast production team includes Coordinating Producer Caitlin Mattingly. The show is produced by the CyberWire, with Executive Editor Peter Kilpe, and I’m Dave Bittner.

Thanks for listening.

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