With a name like the International Spy Museum one might be inclined to think it a pretty cheesy a tourist trap. However, it wasn’t. It’s the first museum in the world devoted to international espionage. Its vast and highly impressive collection includes everything from the German Enigma cipher machine from World War II to more “everyday” spy tools like your standard lipstick pistol and a wristwatch camera. Located in the city’s Penn Quarter, it is a private museum and so, unlike the Smithsonian Museums, the International Spy Museum does charge admission and a somewhat high one at that ($19.95 for adults ages 12 and up, $14.85 for children ages 7-11, children under the age of 6 are free). While the website recommends purchasing your tickets in advance as it stated that entrance times can sell out, not to mention the possibility of having to wait in lines, we didn’t encounter any of this when we visited. But I did get tickets in advance before noon and it was also a cold weekend in February, not exactly prime visiting season in the nation’s capital.
After having your ticket checked you ride an elevator to the second floor where you are asked to assume the identity of a spy. They have the dossiers of about half a dozen spies listed, with varying ages ethnicity and nationalities. It’s slightly similar to the Untied States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where you are given the identity card of a real person from the Holocaust. However, this is a spy museum where paper trails are bad, you are asked to remember your cover. In the staging area there was an exhibit on the real life Argo incident, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to check it out even though I was extremely interested. I wish they would have had this type of an exhibit actually in the museum part where you went at your leisure.
Your visit to the museum officially begins with a five minute movie explaining the world of spying, namely, who are the people that spy, why they do it, and most tragically I felt, the harsh reality that spies are utterly alone in the world should anything go wrong in their mission; no one will go forth to help them or even claim them.
While the museum covers the history of spying dating back to biblical times, the bulk of the museum’s collection was on the Cold War era since that was when the cutthroat world of espionage was at its peak. The exhibits begin with the “School for Spies” which features over 200 gadgets, weapons, bugs, vehicles and other technologies. One of the most impressive items I saw was the recreated depiction of a car that was used to transport people out of Communist oppressed East Germany and into West Germany. Since East German officials eventually caught on that people were hiding in trunks when going through checkpoints, some people removed equipment from the car to hide people (I read that some people removed things like the HVAC unit from a car). I was excited to see a real life paper featuring invisible ink that dated from the Colonial era.
The Secret History of History documents the origins of what is considered to be the second oldest profession. (This I had no idea about, although it certainly makes sense since ruthlessness, jealously, and competition are traits that will always exist in society.) Within this area, there was a section on the famous homing pigeons who rose to fame in World War I when both sides used them as carriers to transport secret messages and codes between the lines (homing pigeons are known for their extensive flying endurance). There was also a section on Civil War spies, notably female spies,including two of the most famous Southern spies, Rose Greenhow and Belle Boyd.
The Spies Among Us section served as a great reminder that “not everyone is who you think they are.” I learned about a famous spy ring in England that would become known as the Cambridge Five, a group of spies that had been recruited by a Russian agent, who passed along information to the Soviet Union during World War II and into the 1950s. Although debate persists as to when the five were recruited, most claims state it was when they were students at Cambridge University. Most ended up defecting to the Soviet Union. None led very happy lives once the ring was exposed.
Perhaps the best part of our visit from a fortuitous standpoint was being able to see the special exhibit, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains.” This took up all of the first floor with exhibits on every Bond villain to date (including the most recent, Raoul Silva from Skyfall). Video montages were featured along with actual artifacts from the films, including the Sea Vac drill from Tomorrow Never Dies and a nerve gas sphere from Moonraker. Moreover, it showed the many parallels and connections to real life espionage and real life villains too.
My only real critique of the museum is that it seemed to fall short with assuming a spy identity. After initially receiving your cover, there were two points in the museum that allowed you to check in (you were asked a series of questions to see how well you remembered everything). But there was no end, no finding out what happens to you. I thought if you were going to market this feature, do a better job of playing with it.
Yes, visiting the Spy Museum comes with a pricey tariff but it’s a museum that truly has a lot to see, some of it so fascinating you can’t believe that it’s real. Yet the people and gadgets are real more importantly, were actually used at one time.
International Spy Museum
800 F Street, NW