This past summer I was able to take a road trip to Washington D.C. and while there visited the International Spy Museum. Open since 2002, it’s one of the few museums dedicated to espionage. It’s set to move to a new, bigger location in early 2018 so this is a last look at the museum’s current incarnation. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit the museum’s new digs some time in the future but for now here’s what you’ll see on your visit.
In addition to the museum they offer a couple of different “experiences,” one of which I tried – Operation Spy. You are in a group of ten and sent on a spy mission to uncover who is selling nuclear parts in a foreign country. Along the way you take part in surveillance, interview assets and sneak into offices. The stage set is very well done, especially considering it’s been running for many years now.
You are led through the experience by the “head operative” in the country and yes, the entire experience is rather stage managed with nothing you do actually affecting the outcome very much. Keep in mind that this is a twelve and up experience so nothing too outrageous or scary is presented. However all that can be mitigated by the enthusiasm of the group leader (we had a great one) and your own. If you get into the moment, you’ll have fun and it’s the closest any of us will likely get to the real thing. I highly recommend giving it a try.
Your spy experience starts from the moment you enter the museum proper. You are given a minute to memorize your new “legend” and then quizzed on it by a staff member or fellow guest. It’s a fun way to get into the mood and there are various spots in the museum that continue to see how much you can remember.
Moving on, everyone goes into a theater space to view a video that talks about espionage and why it happens. It does a good job of explaining the background and preparing you for what you’ll soon be seeing.
The museum itself goes through recent spy history, most memorably Cold War era spying. Getting past Checkpoint Charlie, eavesdropping, surveillance and assassination are all given their due. The most famous traitors in England, the Cambridge Five, get a display that includes the hat and pipe of the most infamous of them all, Kim Philby.
However, the museum about the world’s second oldest profession doesn’t stop with the Cold War. Spying in World Wars I and II, the Civil War, and ancient civilizations are all discussed.
Overall, the museum does a good job of telling the story of espionage. Spying has gone on for thousands of years and can be a crucial piece of the puzzle for every world leader trying to make an informed decision. In their room looking at the history of the KGB, it also becomes apparent how that same knowledge and power can be used against the very people it claims to be protecting.
One criticism I would offer is to see a more nuanced look at times the United States has failed regarding its own intelligence decisions. The museum tends to err on the “good versus bad” side of telling the story of spying which gives a bit of a false narrative. Hopefully, by showing the strengths and weaknesses of espionage the museum can create a more informed populace.
Exquisitely Evil: 50 years of James Bond Villains
The museum has been running a Bond villains exhibit for the past few years that I found great fun. The exhibit does a good job of telling the story of how the antagonists Bond has faced have mimicked the real fears of the western world. Whether the Russians, drug dealers or internet billionaires, we’ve seen Bond defeat them for Queen and Country.
For me, the most enjoyable part was a video of various real CIA officers talking about times they had a “Bond” moment. They may not have been driving an invisible car but their lives were at considerable risk and I appreciated getting a bit of truth with the fiction.
The Spy Store
Beyond the exhibits is the mandatory gift shop. That being said, this is a really well stocked store sure to please everyone from the youngest to the most knowledgeable spy fan.
If you are a book collector there is much to enjoy. They have probably the biggest collection of spy related books for sale anywhere in one physical location and they host a revolving door of espionage writers for signings. I spent too long and too much money in the shop and it was great fun to spend time in a exclusively espionage related store. If you can’t make it to the store they do take online orders, but you can really take advantage of some wonderful in store sales if your are able to visit.
My biggest complaint is only a concern to book collecting nerds such as myself. They use “Signed by the author” stickers that are difficult to remove and leave a residue on the cover. What makes it irritating is that it is easily rectified by getting a slightly higher quality sticker. Beyond that, however, it’s a must stop gift shop for spy fans.
If you are a spy fan planning on visiting Washington D.C., the International Spy Museum is a “must visit” location. If you’re in town, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Spy Sites of Washington D.C., a comprehensive look at spots in the city with a connection to espionage.