Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mission Accomplished: The International Spy Museum - The Experience

I've been dying to check out the International Spy Museum ( in Washington, D.C. ever since I heard that it had opened.   I do get to D.C. somewhat frequently to visit my law school friends but, inexplicably, the spy museum isn't high on their list of things to do.   Maybe the fact that there's an $18 admission charge while the Smithsonians and almost all other museums in the city are free has something to do with it.  In any event, when I found myself in D.C. this week with some time on my hands, I had to check it out.

From the moment that I purchased my ticket, I was thrilled.  The first thing they ask is whether you want a regular admission or to go on a covert operation.   What, I asked, is the covert operation?  It's a special one hour tour where you are charged with finding a nuclear trigger and saving the world.  Having watched many episodes of MI-5 recently, I could barely resist, but I decided to stick with the regular tour for my first visit since time was a bit limited.    I then walked through the door to the museum and got another rush.  A guard told me and the other visitors that we had 4 minutes to choose our covers for our visit and intoned that we would be tested.  The stress!   There were 15-20 different cover identities and backgrounds to choose from and I went with Greta Schmidt, 33, astronomer from Bornstedt, Germany who was on business in London for 4 days.    A clock counted down the seconds until it was time for us to move to the briefing room where we watched a short video about the history of spies.  What causes people to choose such a difficult profession?    Greed?  Ego?  Vulnerability to blackmail?  Patriotism?    I was about to learn more about what caused individual spies to pursue their craft and the techniques they employed.

I then moved into the museum proper, which does an incredible job with interactive stations letting its visitors test their own spy capabilities.  The first stop was a test as to whether I remembered the details of the cover I'd chosen.  Whew--I passed and was then given the details of my mission at the Royal Astronomical Society.  Next up was an exhibit called "Observe and Analyze."   There were categories like "signals" and "dead drops" and you were asked to look at a photo and see if you could choose four of each.   You then had the opportunity to press a button to see if you were right.  Notwithstanding all the thriller and espionage books I've read in my lifetime, I was woefully bad at this and skulked away when I didn't recognize that the chalk mark on the mailbox was a sign for a meet.   Other interactive exhibits included a listening post (the museum itself was bugged and you could listen in on others as they went through), a suspicious activities post where you watched a screen and made a choice about what you were seeing (you compete against other visitors in a Jeopardy-like manner), overhead surveillance where you honed in to try and find things like training camps and caves and a duct that you could crawl through that registered red if you made too much noise.   I couldn't resist a single activity and found that "Greta" had an uphill battle if she was going to accomplish her mission. 

Next stop at the Museum:  spy craft in practice.

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