GCHQ: Watcher of the Skies
PK Porthcurno, Museum of Global Communications has partnered with intelligence, cyber and security agency GCHQ for a new exhibition called ‘Watcher of the Skies’ which tells the fascinating story of a secret communications site on an exposed Cornish headland.
All images used in the exhibition were kindly provided by GCHQ from their archive and are owned by or subject to Crown Copyright.
Government Communications Headquarters, commonly known as GCHQ, is the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency, working to keep the country safe, in the real world and online. The exhibition traces the origins of the organisation from the early 20th century through to the present day. GCHQ’s Bude site plays a critical part in their mission by collecting the essential data that underpins GCHQ’s operations.
The origins of GCHQ can be traced to the early 20th century. From 1909, Britain had a small Secret Service Bureau which would intercept foreign spies and field its own agents. However, the increasing use of signals through wireless technology called for a new approach, most notably when Britain went to war in 1914 where intelligence units provided valuable insights into enemy plans by intercepting and solving coded messages.
Proving to be very successful the units were merged to become the Government Code & Cipher School (GC&CS). During the Second World War, GC&CS shaped military operations breaking the famous Enigma codes. In 1946, GC&CS became GCHQ as it faced a constantly evolving telecommunications environment and the new geopolitical tensions of an emerging Cold War.
Watcher of the Skies
‘Watcher of the Skies’ reveals the rich personal and technological stories that have underpinned secret communications over the course of a century, including never-before-seen historical technology.
Of the many GCHQ stations around the UK, one, in particular, had its eyes on the sky – an exposed Cornish headland called Sharpnose Point where an array of satellite receivers stand sentry, information interceptors often looming from the sea mist. This is GCHQ Bude, the focus of ‘Watcher of the Skies’.
From humble beginnings with only two antennas, GCHQ Bude has grown to become an indispensable part of the intelligence-gathering community, the site now has 30 antennas of all shapes and sizes collecting data and enabling GCHQ Bude to fulfil its mission.
The new exhibition, which is open to the public until June 2023, features images, artefacts and film footage from the GCHQ archive. ‘Watcher of the Skies’ tells the story of GCHQ Bude through the years – from the televised address of JF Kennedy in 1962 via the world’s first communications satellite, overcoming the challenges of ever-changing maritime weather on the Cornish coast, to its community outreach and charitable endeavours today.
Click below to read anecdotes from former staff of CSOS Bude
Watcher of the Skies is curated by David Twomlow and is designed by Mark Mintern of Freedom Signs. The exhibition also features bespoke illustrations by Penzance-based artist Mat McIvor. ‘Watcher of the Skies’ is on show in the WW2 bunker at PK Porthcurno from 29 June 2022 to 30 June 2023.