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Secrets and spies

Intrigue, glamour, gadgets – throughout pop culture, spies and espionage have captured the public’s imagination but your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to separate fact from fiction.

Bringing stories of spies out of the shadows and into the light, Spy: Espionage in Australia is a new exhibition at the National Archives of Australia (NAA), developed in partnership with Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

“When we started researching for the exhibition, we knew we wanted to play on pop culture. That is very much reflected in the design of the exhibition. We wanted to give people something they were comfortable with and bust some myths,” NAA curator Emily Catt said.

And, as it turns out, many of your pop culture heroes wouldn’t actually make a good spy.

“James Bond would be a dreadful spy. He’s not very secretive about what he’s doing; he risks contacts, blows things up.”

Instead, Catt highlighted Anne Neill, a war widow in her 50s who became a successful ASIO agent, as the antithesis of fictional spies.

“Most Bond agents are very glamourous and very obvious, so Anne Neill was so strong and so good at her job because she was undetected.”

Stories such as Neill’s are shared throughout the exhibition as Catt chose to focus on people rather than get “bogged down” in dates and acronyms.

“I looked at somewhere in excess of 700 records so it was a really in-depth research experience. With an exhibition, you only really see the tip of the iceberg of what we’ve looked at,” she said. “I sought out stories of individuals and what happened, what was the environment like around them.”

Exploring the how and why of security and intelligence developments in Australia from Federation to the present day, the catalyst for the exhibition was ASIO releasing an official history.

“ASIO allowed historians unfettered access to their collection and, with the release of these records, there were so many new ways for us to understand what we had in our collections,” Catt said.

This is the first time that ASIO has actively contributed to a public exhibition, sharing original objects from their archives and collections, as well as allowing interviews that provide insight into the lives of ASIO officers.

“That was a huge deal for us, particularly because there have been exhibitions that have touched on this topic in the past,” Catt said. “For me, it was very important to tell something that hadn’t been seen before.”

The exhibition also features two children’s trails with physical interactions and the opportunity to earn a “licence to spy”.

Spy: Espionage in Australia is a free exhibition at the NAA, 18 King George Terrace, Parkes, from 29 November to 27 April. Open every day 9am-5pm (closed Christmas Day and Good Friday). For more information, visit naa.gov.au

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