Snowden Leaks Notwithstanding, It's Business as Usual at the NSA Museum

It would be fair to say that media interest in the National Security Agency has never been higher, thanks to Edward Snowden, the IT administrator who leaked thousands of NSA documents to journalists. 

There have been Congressional hearings. There have been magazine profiles of the NSA's head, General Keith Alexander. There have been front page stories and endless cable news speculation. 

The public has little direct access to the agency, except in one small regard: the National Security Agency runs the National Cryptologic Museum, adjacent to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. 

"The National Cryptologic Museum is the National Security Agency's principal gateway to the public," the NSA itself puts it

So one might imagine, in this year, that the National Cryptologic Museum is now overrun with interested citizens and looky-loos. 

But that is not the case. 

After weeks of haranguing, the museum disclosed their attendance figures to me. They look like this:

NSA

Last year, 62,388 people went to the museum. This year, they're estimating attendance at 63,000. In other words, despite all the hubbub about the NSA's activities, few people are making the trek to the agency "principal gateway to the public." 

Instead of drowning in a flood of visitors, the museum's staff is preparing for the 20th anniversary of the museum's opening, which is December 17. In fact, they already had a party for the commemoration, complete with a birthday cake and swag for children ("America's Cryptokids: Future Codemakers & Codebreakers"). 

National Cryptologic Museum
National Cryptologic Museum

There was even a birthday singalong led by the museum's administrator and educational coordinator Jen Wilcox.

NSA deputy director John C.  Inglis dropped in for a visit, too. Here he is explaining the WWII-era Enigma codebreaking machine to a tour.  

National Cryptologic Museum

It's really a shame that as interest in the NSA's activities has gone up, more people haven't taken the time to visit the agency's museum. When we sent a reporter in 2010, he found it a fascinating trip:

The displays humanize and, at times, justify the shadowy agency that may or may not be listening to your phone calls. Unlike the NSA of the '50s and '60s, which went by the name No Such Agency and would, upon questioning, claim to not exist, the National Cryptologic Museum paints a portrait of an agency that wishes it could break its self-imposed obscurity.

When asked to define the primary function of the museum, curator Patrick Weadon responded that it was to "help people understand the critical role the making and breaking of codes has played throughout history" and "extrapolate from that how important the present day mission is."

And extrapolate you must because the museum's collection mysteriously ends around the 1990s, and is curated in a way that manages to avoid any lingering controversy or unseemliness.

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.


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