Decoding the secrets of the Australian Signals Directorate

National Museum of Australia

A man stands inside the Decoded exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the agency took the extraordinary step of lifting the lid on its achievements—from its origins in the Second World War to cyber challenges today. Collaborating with the National Museum of Australia and Art Processors, the aim was to build public trust and recognition with an immersive, informative exhibition, Decoded: 75 Years of the Australian Signals Directorate.

This was part of our ongoing partnership with the Museum, and we pushed the boundaries of the visitor experience further than ever before. There were three layers to our work in creating the end-to-end visitor journey: exhibition design and build; creating and curating content; and software production. Key at all times was considering how we drew people into the story as if they were agents themselves. The end result was atmospheric, engaging, memorable and unprecedented in its access.

A multiplayer spy game at the National Musem of Australia's DECODED exhibition.

Challenge

Our key challenge was to tell the history and stories of the ASD in an imaginative, mysterious and engaging environment, matching the experience of working within the service. We wanted visitors to be immersed in the organisation, almost feeling as if they were spies for the day. 

For the first time, 12 intelligence agency officers from a diverse set of roles and missions were interviewed on camera, revealing what it’s really like to protect the nation from cyber threats and keep Australia’s secrets safe. It’s highly compelling but it’s also highly classified. Many of the interviewees had never spoken about their missions before and so had to be 100% confident that they could trust us. 

Another challenge was how to appeal to a diverse set of audiences. Visitors were expected to vary from agency employees, to students considering their future careers, to general museumgoers interested in the history and objects on display.

Inside the new DECODED exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.
Mobile screen interface from Decoded exhibition
Mobile screen interface from Decoded exhibition
Screenshot of the game experience at the Decoded exhibition

Approach

At the heart of our thinking was ASD’s motto, “Reveal their secrets, protect our own.” Everything in the exhibition was protected in some way and visitors were hands-on participants in unlocking the hidden stories. We wanted to help them actively connect the past to the present, and their daily lives. 

Triggering sensors by stepping into symbols projected on the floor activated audio narratives and videos, and revealed objects displayed behind transparent two-way mirrors. Real ASD codewords hidden throughout the space revealed an additional layer of content for those using the mobile experience. 

We reassured interviewees that all information and stories would be vetted and signed off at the highest levels, both before videoing and afterwards. Where information needed to be redacted, we leaned into this as it demonstrated just how unrivalled access was for the exhibition.

To ensure all audiences were catered for, visitors were presented with a mix of emotional and cognitive experiences to promote the formation of long-lasting memories for all. 

We created a game for 2-5 players to work together to resolve ‘real world’ missions before time runs out. Full of cutscenes and projected onto a large screen, it puts visitors into the shoes of operatives making life-and-death decisions. 
 

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A woman plays an original game Art Processors created for the Decoded exhibition at the National Museum of Australia

Solution

Visitors gain entrance to the gallery through an air-lock that flashes red to green, immediately immersing them in the world of espionage. The immersion continues throughout, with the whole exhibition having a dark, dramatic, almost monochromatic, visual language. Backlit signs, providing explanations and signposting, visually pop against dark walls. Traffic light colours are used sparingly as accents in signage and surrounds. Strategically placed spotlights highlight key elements, such as objects in display cases or locations to step. 

Sparking intrigue, a central digital pillar displays a collection of real life codewords waterfalling down its five sides. 

Layered audiovisual storytelling brings to life the purpose, history and origins of the ASD. The perimeter of the gallery showcases the history of ASD from WWII, cipher codes, the Cold War, military operations, technological evolution, 911, and cybercrime challenges. Continuing the pentagon aesthetic, five pillars surrounded the exhibition, each featuring videos with real operatives that focused on a different theme: Origins, Missions, People, Cyber, and Future.

Visitors’ mobile phones provide an optional deep dive narrative layer throughout the exhibition. Simply by scanning or typing codewords into a web app, visitors discover additional stories for objects on display and themes covered. The mobile web app also provided post-visit content, making sure that the experience remain with visitors once they leave the museum.

A woman stands inside the Decoded exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.