International Spy Museum
With Agent Stinkhead
Washington DC - 06.21.03, 1300 hours - Last year, our nation's capital became home to the largest collection of espionage memorbilia open to the public. Secrets of how governments were toppled, officials assassinated, and coups diverted are all laid bare with in-depth, interactive exhibits, actual artifacts and eye-witness accounts from the men and women who carried out the dubious deeds. So when our friend Playmoliver from Germany came to visit, I thought, why not take a German to the new International Spy Museum?
The museum opened in 2002, so you won't find the old musky smell of preserved monkey brains and old people. The exhibits are interactive and very engaging, as they were designed with our shrinking attention spans in mind. The Spy Museum is not affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution (pros: no bad smell, cons: admission is $13). The people that put this immense undertaking together include former CIA and FBI agents and directors, ex-KGB, and espionage historians. (Some of those roles filled by the same guy, but you didn't hear that from me).
Before we begin, I will disclose my own mission. It's two part. First, find evidence of Chuck Barris' role in the CIA, and two, sneak drinks from my water bottle. It was 100 degrees that day, and you're not supposed to have food or drink in the museum.
When you first enter the exhibit, you're shown a short film detailing the history of espionage and the role it played in keeping our nation the international power-house that it is today. Shortly thereafter you file into a small room with the rest of your tour group to choose an alter-identity. Unlike the last museum where I had to shave my legs and wear a dress, this time, I simply had to memorize a fictitious back-story for travelling into guarded territory. Later on in the exhibit you are quizzed about your identity and given tips for better lie-um- persuasion techniques. I enjoyed going up to the different exhibit stations because they are so interactive. The most exciting experience to come from a museum in the past was seeing naked cave-lady boobs. Here, you're shown how to be aware of people surveilling you, how to spot a secret transaction, and how to cleverly disguise your equipment and your motives (sounds like singles' night).
Mission Objective Update: At this point I'm parched. It's no help that my brain knows that I have a bottle of cold water in my bag, but there are people watching, everywhere. Also, consider for a moment the number of hidden cameras that are utilized in a museum featuring hidden cameras.
I love hidden cameras. The museum has collected a large selection of spy cameras used in the field during the cold war. At first glance, the little cameras are not as impressive as they used to be. Now, with X-10 and cell-phone cameras, we know what a button hole is capable of photographing. (Man, do I have a dirty overseas website for you!) I personally attach to the significance of the actual camera behind the glass. This little thing caught an assassin before it was too late. You can read about some of the missions that these tools played a part in. They also had a great display detailing how easy it is to plant an audio recording device in someone's apartment or office. Many times a Trojan horse type method of presenting a bugged gift to your target was employed. Others get all kinds of creative and work the bug into chair guards along the wall, or under fake dog poop outside the mark's door. Something fun here, they have an air-duct crawl space you can climb into. About 3 feet wide and tall, you crawl on your hands and knees across the ceiling of this exhibit room and peek out of the air vents at the unsuspeciting tourists below.
Mission Objective Update: I use the seclusion and darkness of the air duct crawl way to sneak a drink from my water bottle, however there are many kids travelling through as well, quickly like a stampede. I must crawl on one hand with my head titled back to swallow. Then disaster. Lando calls on my cellphone. Proving that I am not ready to be a secret agent. I realize nothing gives away your hidden location faster than the Knight Rider theme done in MIDI.
Between looking at the tools of the trade exhibit and getting to the history of espionage, there are some wonderful interactive exhibits. Computer games quiz you on your secret identity, or help you to sharpen your surveillance skills. I did not get to experience many of these for very long due to the number of children with no stinkin concept of waiting their turn. I recommend visiting the museum in the fall when the hellions are chained to their school books.
Whoa a NINJA! How cool is it to find a ninja in a museum? Very. Our culture has reduced ninjas and the entire secret club of ninjas to a common, bad movie villian. That's not true! Ninjas were some of the best spies in history! (For more info on ninjas, go to Real Ultimate Power.net)
Anyway, the next portion of the exhibit details how espionage played a major role in the Revolutionary war, and has some great exhibits showing their methods and exploits. I would take a second to discuss how society ridicules those with short attention spans, but I learned a lot of things with the Spy Museum's hands-on exhibits that I would normally skim over in a text book. Things such as, well, George Washington used spies, but none of them were ninjas.
Mission Objective Update: Ok, I'm not that thirsty any more, but we're looking for evidence of Chuck Barris's life with the CIA. Travelling through the history section, I stumble upon my second objective; the Celebrities as Spies exhibit.
Celebrity Spies - Apparently, not only were these lucky people famous, they were spies too. Director John Ford, baseball player Moe Berg, Marlene Dietrich, Julia Child, and Josephine Baker are each credited with helping the government through espionage. No Barris yet. Does the Spy Musuem refuse to recognize Mr. Barris' merit as a celebrity? Are his exploits detailed in a different exhibit? Wait a minute! Julia Child down plays her role as a spy. She is trying to avoid the attention and she's on this hallowed wall. Mr Barris comes clean with his demons and is not included. Is the irony killing anyone else here?
Perhaps his involvement is too recent, not yet official declassified by the government. I ask the museum's press contact Jennie Saxon. Here is her reply:
"As far as we know, the source for most of the information about Barris' involvement in espionage is Barris himself. We do not know for certain whether Barris was indeed an assassin, and we have not come across any de-classified information to support that. As we do not have access to classified information, we can't say whether something may be revealed in the future. If a declassified item or story fits within the Museum collection and enhances the stories we tell, we could conceivably start incorporating it into our displays the minute it is declassified... we don't have anything like that waiting in the wings though since we don't have classified access."
The next portion of museum is full of great stories of near misses, captures, escapes, killings and rescues. One of my favorite stories is about how the Allied Forces used the German's espionage efforts against them and shipped in hundreds of inflatable tanks to throw off their numbers and thus leading them to believe that Normandy was not the attack to worry about. I had to chuckle here. Playmoliver, laughed as well, but then called me something in German that I don't understand. So I asked Ms. Saxon about the sensitivity that went into preparing each exhibit:
"Being Politically Correct and Unbiased are not always the same thing. At the Museum, our focus is on an objective view of the role espionage has played in world history. Our board members help us tell as many sides of a story that we can. The board consists of former CIA, FBI, and KGB, as well as espionage historians from the UK and former directors of central intelligence."
The people behind designing the museum went all the way with designing the exhibit space to look like the back of an army van, the enemy's perimter or an underground tunnel. It's easy to forget you're in a museum as you're walking around.
Mission Objective Update: Plenty of nooks and crannies here for sipping some sweet, sweet, water. Damnit, now I have to pee.
Pop Culture - Another great exhibit shows the impact tales of espionage have had on our pop culture. Such greats as Get Smart and I Spy all the way to James Bond and Austin Powers. Call me weird, but I love seeing toys on display behind glass. It brings weight and importance to our hobby. It also helps raise prices on eBay. Ah, capitalism and espionage.... caspionage... no? Sorry. Moving along.
Speaking of capitalism, let me tell you about the Museum Store. Museum store? You're thinking, over-priced erasers with a logo stamped on it. Not here. They had some great things for sale. They stock your standard souvenir t-shirts and mugs, but they also have spy TV show/movie-theme CDs, and loads of cool spy gear! Books and peanut butter jars that are really safes, clocks with cameras hidden in them, and the lipstick gun from earlier! Ok no, it is a fake lipstick, but it conceals a pen, not a gun. But it's close!
Despite failing one of my objectives, and over-performing on the other, I had a great time. The International Spy Museum is one of the best things you can do in DC right now. It is edu-tainment in its highest form. However, I have three recommendations:
- Go in the fall or spring, when kids are in school.
- Buy your ticket through their website to avoid the line (which isn't all that bad)
- Allow plenty of time to enjoy the exhibit. We spent about 2.5 hours going through.
Date recommendation: My girlfriend does not enjoy Bond movies or even ninjas, but she had a great time at this museum. So this is a great date idea or something you can truthfully enjoy with the fairer sex.
The next time you're visiting our fine nation's capitol, hop on the Metro and get off at the Gallery Place/ Chinatown station. You can walk from there.
You can help me with my failed mission. Print out this very historical image I found of Chuck Barris and kindly give it to an employee of the museum. Tell them it fell off the wall and needs to be re-hung immediately. I thank you, and your nation thanks you.
Article © 2003 MillionairePlayboy.com. All images are property of the International Spy Museum unless otherwise marked. Spy Vs. Spy photos © MillionairePlayboy.com. Please remember that photography and food and drinks are not permitted in the museum at any time.