Codes and a medieval curse — fascinating secrets revealed in new University of Nottingham exhibition

19 Sep 2013 15:48:20.120

Codes, confidential communications and a medieval curse feature in the new Weston Gallery exhibition Secret Intelligence and Hidden Evidence. Surprising Finds in The University of Nottingham’s Historic Collections.

In a world of 24/7 news bulletins and social media channels, we have become familiar with the daily uncovering of secrets, both public and private. This exhibition shows how the past can also yield up its secrets, and illustrates how evidence about historic events survives through surprising voices and in curious contexts.

Records of government officers reveal the activities of early spies, and evidence of the use of codes and ciphers is found in papers surviving from the political turmoil of the 17th century. We  see examples of British surveillance of subjects living abroad during the 18th century Jacobite crisis. Evidence of state monitoring of the political activities of a branch official of the Communist Party, Fred Westacott, provides historical context for more recent controversies about the use of undercover agents to discover the movements of campaign activists.

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Private correspondence reveals frank and confidential views on the gossip rippling through celebrity obsessed 19th century society, damaging the reputations of the art critic John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and disciple Millais. This fascinating love triangle is the subject of a British film scripted by Emma Thompson scheduled for release later this year. The proliferation of political satire exposes public appetite for the details of the 1820s Delicate Investigation commissioned by George IV to gain evidence of his wife Caroline’s infidelity and his attempts to strip her of her title of Queen Consort.

War time use of information as propaganda is demonstrated in the display of a full size facsimile of a newly conserved and digitised Soviet war poster entitled ‘Secret and Counter Secret’, which sought to reassure the Russian people that the Germans had no secret weapon. The communication of intelligence in conflict situations is also examined, and the need for censorship in the reporting of events is contrasted with the expression of personal perspectives from individuals caught in the crisis.

Books and manuscripts reveal unexpected layers of meaning. Dietary advice with a modern ring — ‘eat no raw meat… drink wholesome wine’ — is discovered among the pages of a 15th century parchment psalter, which is displayed open with a finely decorated page containing a curse to ensure the precious volume’s preservation.  

“This is an exhibition that focuses on secrets and revelations, so it is full of surprises,” said exhibition curator Dorothy Johnston. “In our research for it, we’ve been amazed to see the range of stories that emerged from the archives and even more surprised to discover how the issues around secrecy, confidentiality, public and private resonate with our 21st century lives. There are stories here to intrigue and surprise everyone.” 

Co-curator Sarah Colourne added: “It’s been fascinating to discover the connections between the various archive collections held at the University, which were created by local families and individuals — to find them gossiping about the latest scandals just as Twitter users do today.”

A series of lunchtime talks will be held to accompany the exhibition — all taking place in the Djanogly Theatre in the Lakeside Arts Centre on University Park between 1-2pm. Admission is free but places are limited so please book in advance with the Box Office on 0115 846 7777

Tuesday 24 September


Dr Rory Cormac, an expert in British intelligence and lecturer in International Relations at The University of Nottingham, introduces the murky world of espionage. He discusses the highs and lows of using archives to access sensitive material, sharing some surprising revelations along the way.

Monday 14 October


Dr Dorothy Johnston, co-curator of Secret Intelligence and former Keeper of the Manuscripts at The University of Nottingham, draws on her memories of archives encountered during her career. She describes the development of the exhibition’s themes with further illustrations from the collections.

Thursday 14 November


Cynthia Marsh, Emeritus Professor of Russian Drama and Literature, discusses the development of an innovative online exhibition showcasing the University’s collection of Soviet war posters. The propaganda posters, produced by the Central Telegraph Agency in Moscow, played an important role in distributing news during the war.

For more information  on the exhibition visit the Manuscripts and Special Collections website —


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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It was ‘one of the first to embrace a truly international approach to higher education’, according to the Sunday Times University Guide 2013. It is also one of the most popular universities among graduate employers, one of the world’s greenest universities, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the UK’s Top 10 and the World’s Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the QS World Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fundraising campaign, will deliver the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Sarah Colbourne, Archivist, Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 4619, or

Tara De Cozar

Tara De Cozar - Internal Communications Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8560 Location: University Park

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