Espionage Exposed

Fantasy and Reality Collide at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C.

By April Bartel | Posted on 10.09.13 – Destinations, People & Places, Travel

From George Washington’s culper spy ring to cyber-snooping, spying is not new in America, nor was it invented here. But it’s fitting that one of the planet’s most “bugged” cities is also home to an attraction spotlighting the secret trade of spies. The International Spy Museum presents “the world’s second oldest profession” as an intriguing mélange of history, human intelligence and pop culture, as visitors peek behind the veil of headlines and Hollywood portrayals.

If you assume that spy movies are overblown, it’s time for a reality check. This privately owned and operated repository of all-things espionage packs hundreds of artifacts and interactive exhibits into its 64,000-square-foot complex, just a one-block stroll from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail Station to its F Street location. The museum’s mission, according to founder Milton Maltz, is to reflect the significance of intelligence as a critical component of national security, without being political. That’s a tall order, but it works. There is little commentary about “good guys” or “bad guys,” just spies doing their jobs really, really well. The technology ranges from ingeniously simple, like chalk lines on a mailbox, to James Bond worthy gadgets.

Because the museum’s scope isn’t limited to one country or era, there is plenty to explore. Stories are told through artifacts, photos, interactive displays, film and video. Basic tickets are $14.95 to $19.95 for ages 7 and up. The staging is designed to allay crowding, but the museum is a hot ticket during tourism peaks and holidays. Visitors become “recruits,” as an elevator takes them to the first section, known as “School for Spies.” Here, they can choose and memorize a cover story for their undercover career. (You don’t have to, but it is fun.) There’s a short video. Then groups spill out into a maze of nooks and alcoves with interactive exhibits that test observation, memory and risk-assessment skills.

Remember the shoe-phone hotline to headquarters on TV’s Get Smart? It’s real! Well, sort of. Romanian agents used transmitters in shoes during the 1960’s to track a mark and record conversations. Along with altered shoes, there are
cases full of gadgets used over the past couple centuries. Well before modern “spyware,” professionals turned to lipstick guns, hollow coins, fake cigarettes and buttonhole cameras to get the job done. Visitors can investigate a sonar station, count concealed bodies in an escape vehicle or marvel at the sleek but- deadly spinning wheels of an Aston Martin.

Next in line, “The Secret History of History” section chronicles spying from biblical times to the early 20th century. Apparently, even Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were no stranger to creative information gathering techniques. “Spies Among Us” displays espionage through World War II with real-life spy stories and code breaking operations.

The Museum’s current special exhibit, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains,” is a consistent crowd pleaser. From Dr. No to Skyfall, James Bond’s foes have evolved with the times. This collection combines classic film clips and movie props with historical artifacts, activities and commentary by real spies to illustrate how the Bond series has influenced public perception. In one niche, guests can transform a photo of themselves via “Vilify Me!” This downloadable iPhone app was created for the exhibit. Would-be villains clothe and accessorize an avatar, then try to create an impenetrable lair to thwart Bond himself.

The last segment of the Museum focuses on challenges for modern intelligence professionals worldwide with the film Ground Truth. Cyber War is addressed in Weapons of Mass Disruption. Of course, no attraction is complete without a
gift-shop, too.

Throughout the space there are plenty of buttons to push and information to read. So, those who like to absorb every detail can easily make a day of the museum. Casual visitors should budget two to three hours, while preschoolers might make it an hour-long obstacle course. (Children 6 and under are free.) Street parking is limited, with two hour max meters. Nearby parking facilities charge $10 to $20.

For an even more immersive experience, Operation Spy and Spy in the City are elective programs ($14.95 each), but combo tickets are available. In Spy in the City, operatives are armed with a Geo-Cobra GPS device for an outdoor operation. The challenge is to unravel clues, codes and audio intercepts to complete Operation SlyFox (one hour) or
Operation Catbird (30 minutes), while soaking in the history and scenic landmarks of D.C. “It’s sightseeing like you’ve never seen,” says Jason Werden, public relations manager at the museum.

Operation Spy takes participants on quests as U.S. intelligence officers, tasked with locating a missing nuclear device “before it falls into the wrong hands.”Described as “intense,” the experience combines live-action, video characters, themed environments, special effects and hands-on activities.

The International Spy Museum could be part of a friends’ weekend or a special event, such as a teen’s birthday or team-building activity, but plan ahead for crowds. Spanning from 8th to 9th Street in D.C.’s Penn Quarter, the museum’s neighborhood is packed with points of interest. It is across from the National Portrait Gallery, around the corner from Ford’s Theatre, and down the block from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Verizon Center, the Newseum and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building are all nearby.

Food choices in the area are plentiful, too. The attached Shake Shack serves frozen custard and classics like burgers, flat-top dogs and even treats for real dogs. On another corner, NoPa Kitchen + Bar replaced Zola. This new American brasserie gets thumbs-up for its bread, Brussels sprouts, fried chicken and desserts. There is also the huge
Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, Pret A Manger, and several steak houses. If you don’t mind a walk, celebrity chef Jose Andres’ Jaleo is on 7th Street and food trucks cluster around the Metro Center exit at lunchtime.

Whether your fantasy mission involves a raven, a floater, or a spymaster, arranging dead drops or a bang and burn operation, you’re in the right place at the International Spy Museum.