New Diefenbaker Canada Centre exhibition features Second World War Enigma machine

Photo from the Diefenbaker Canada Centre Facebook page. Saskatchewan residents will have a chance to view a Second World War Enigma machine as part of a travelling exhibit on encryption at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

A new exhibition at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre on the University of Saskatchewan (USask) campus will provide visitors with a rare opportunity to view an authentic Second World War Enigma cipher machine.

The 500-square-foot show, called Cipher/Decipher, highlights a wide range of historic communications encryption artifacts on loan from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). The exhibition features a range from early code breaking such as the World War II Enigma machine up to modern day coding such as WiFi and cell phones.

Diefenbaker Canada Centre Curatorial, Collections and Exhibits Manager Heather Fraser said the exhibit is a unique, interactive and engaging experience for all ages.

“It kind of ranges from the historical aspect all the way to the modern day uses of encryption, so it’s a pretty exciting exhibit,” Fraser explained. “There are mostly hands on activities for all different ages, so it’s super family friendly. We are really excited to open our doors back to the public with this exhibit.”

Fraser said the Diefenbaker Centre hasn’t been open since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Centre staff have used that time to make the centre more hands-on, family friendly, and interactive.

Fraser said that will allow visitors to experience the centre in new and interesting ways.

“We want to be able to create that environment to welcome the public back in as safely and with as much fun as we can, because we have been closed for so long,” she said. “Being able to welcome people back in is just super exciting for us.”

The exhibition was developed by Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation / Ingenium – Musées des sciences et de l’innovation du Canada in partnership with the CSE. It allows visitors to scramble their own messages using a cipher wheel, see how an Enigma cipher machine works, and tackle puzzles to learn if they have what it takes to work in the field of cryptology.

“This interactive exhibition demystifies a complex field, and lets visitors discover how much communications cryptology technologies contribute to our everyday lives,” President and CEO of Ingenium, Christina Tessier said in a release.

Fraser said they’re grateful for the partnership that allows the Centre to host the traveling exhibit.

“We only have it until September 11, which is a pretty short stay here in Saskatoon,” she explained. “They are the developers. They created it. We have created some programming just around the exhibit by ourselves … but they are the main people behind it.”

The Enigma machine on display at the Diefenbaker Centre exhibit was discovered in a German submarine. Fraser said it’s exciting to be able to teach coding and encryption techniques used in world war two, since it’s not a subject most people are familiar with.

“It is the real thing from World War II,” she said. “It was used during the war by the German military, so it is pretty exciting to have that kind of military history here in Saskatoon. It is not something you see very often. They are pretty rare.

“It goes back a really long time, people encoding and encrypting messages and just being able to see the difference,” she added. “We would think the Enigma machine is a pretty rudimentary way of encrypting things, but during World War II it was high tech. It was super important that the Allies be able to learn to break these codes to shorten the war and save lives, (but) for us it seems pretty rudimentary, it looks like a typewriter.”

Fraser said the display also focuses on another important aspect: how encryption has changed over time. That’s another thing she said most residents don’t think about, but it’s something they want to emphasize to visitors.

“We don’t really think about it anymore because it is just something that is part of our lives. The Enigma machine shows that it was a pretty important aspect of history that is not really looked at much anymore,” Fraser said.

Cipher|Decipher opened on July 7 and will run through to Sept. 11, 2021. Tickets are available to pre-purchase for scheduled tours of the Diefenbaker Canada Centre permanent and travelling exhibits galleries. Attendance is limited to 10 people per tour in accordance with both the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan and the USask Stages of Recovery guidelines. 

“We are only open currently Wednesdays and Thursdays for pre-booked tours. So the public does have to pre-book their times on our website so it is just for contact tracing and COVID protocols and that masks are still mandatory even after July 11,” Fraser said.

“You have to pre-book your tours, but we are really excited to welcome people back in.”