Slick Museum Capitalizes on Popular Images

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on February 9, 2009

Call me old school, but there's something just too clever by half about the International Spy Museum for my taste. Well, you might counter, spies are supposed to be clever. Shouldn't a museum devoted to them also be?

Well, yes, but not like this, with espionage presented essentially as an entertainment package, which is what the Spy Museum most definitely is. I've now been to the museum several times -- most recently after a hiatus of about four years -- so you might say I've had time to mull over my reaction quite well. Initially I was impressed, but now, I'm somewhat ambivalent.

Let's start with the entrance. More often than not, there will be a line to get in the place, with a phalanx of black polo-shirted employees directing visitors to the right payment line (a hefty $18 entrance fee) and then through a high-tech-looking "metal detector" gate. The entrance foyer is dramatically lit, all black and silver, with a gleaming bank-vault-style decor. The idea is that you're entering a secure facility and passing through the necessary security check points.

Problem is, these days we all are sick and tired of security check points -- especially in DC, home of countless concrete anti-terrorist bollards. Also, the "security guard" greeters are so obviously drawn from the pool of local college students, the aforementioned polo-shirt brigade. Perhaps a few menacing bouncer types would help sustain the illusion better. En route through the gate, you're told no photos, food or drink, recording devices, or strollers which is fine by me, as clueless would-be photographers capturing their flash reflections in glass display cases constitute a major inconvenience in museum-going these days, not to mention the "my child [who is too young to appreciate this anyway] is incapable of independent locomotion and must be pushed in a stroller" brigade.

The conceit at the Spy Museum is that visitors will become "operatives" and "gather intelligence" on a "mission." To this effect, each entering group is sectioned off into the requisite number that will fit into an elevator to go to their "briefing." The elevator opens, and one of the polo-shirted college brigade explains that you are now to select a cover identity from the dozens posted on pillars in the chamber -- and to be sure to carefully memorize the details of your new identity, for your life may depend on it.

The first time I visited, I did just that, thinking that it would be rather fun. Always an overachiever, I had my new identity down pat and expected to be put through my paces. Alas, one of the museum's major flaws, in my book, is that it doesn't carry through very well on this initial "you're a spy" conceit. Sure, after selecting an identity, you're ushered into a theater and shown a film that outlines some of the dangers and requirements of spycraft. But after exiting the theater, the "mission" theme carries over only in the first two overcrowded rooms.

See, if everyone is "on a mission," they all need to do pretty much the same thing -- but any sane person wants to walk away from that group of strangers they've just spent the past half hour in a confined space with. Or at least I certainly did. But enough curmudgeonly whinging: what actually is in the Spy Museum?

Lots of toys. Really. More than you can imagine. Deadly ones, sneaky ones, state-of-the-art ones, concealed ones, tons of miniature ones, and a few downright risque ones, such as the "rectal tool kit." (Don't ask.) A spy's gear, it seems, resembles a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog on steroids.

Still, there's an "ooh and ahh" factor here. Watch a video that demonstrates how to use various lock picks. (A group of juvenile delinquents in the making stood rapt before this display.) Or the younger members might want to crawl through the ductwork, and many do as the thumping sounds emanating from overhead testify. There are dozens and dozens of aluminum-housed glass cases with miniature cameras, bugs, and (my personal favorite) unorthodox concealed weapons, such as a lipstick gun once issued to female KGB agents or a poison-tipped "killer umbrella" similar to the one used to Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov on the streets of London in 1978.

And then there's the James Bond car, a gleaming silver 1964 Aston Martin DB-5 rigged exactly like the one used by 007 in "Goldfinger." Every ten minutes or so, the lighting dims, the James Bond theme plays as the sound of the car's engine straining during a high-speed chase is heard. A bulletproof shield rises from the boot of the car, and then machine gun turrets emerge from the front and "fire" at the bad guy.

Very cute. Impressive, even. But this goes straight to the heart of my problem with the Spy Museum. It's first and foremost a commercial enterprise, and a great deal of the appeal of the place depends on what people already know -- or think they know -- about spies.

Thus, there are a lot of displays devoted to spies in film, literature, and so on, not to mention spy celebrities such as Julia Child (not really a "spy" per se, but once employed by the precursor to the CIA) and Marlene Dietrich. Let's face it: neither of these ladies, wonderful as they were, really merits a place in serious espionage lore. But no matter -- their near life-size images make good eye candy for a section on "Celebrity Spies."

Sometimes the disconnect between "real" spycraft and the Hollywood version is a bit jarring. You'll round the corner of a display on a very grim topic such as Nuclear Spies and there might be a display case of children's toys -- decoder rings and such. And while there is a slew of information, none of it is particularly deep, and since the coverage is so broad there's little context to place it in. Children love the Enigma code-breaking center room, for example, but are more intent on playing with the headsets than understanding how this very complex operation took place.

In another room, teenagers stare listlessly at displays on the Dreyfuss Affair before moving on to something juicier. There are hundreds of small blurbs (many not very well lit and almost impossible to read) posted hither and yon in numerous "theme" rooms such as "Sisterhood of Spies," "Checkpoint Charlie," and "Behind Enemy Lines." After the initial silver-themed rooms devoted to spycraft, the museum leads visitors through a more-or-less chronological walk through famous spies and incidents, starting back with the Romans and advancing up to the 21st century.

One shortcoming becomes evident here -- some of the most popular displays seem crammed into far too little space, while other displays -- Hannibal's military campaigns, anyone? -- are not only spacious but nearly vacant. Naturally, I gravitated towards some of the more vacant displays, and found some entertainment reading the exploits of a carrier pigeon called "Cher Ami," awarded the Croix de Guerre for her valor during WWI.

In the second part of the museum, which is back on the ground floor, patrons enter the world of the Cold War -- atmospheric sections on Berlin predominate, along with a nicely done "Wilderness of Mirrors" on the most famous spies of the Cold War era such as Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames. An interesting film in this room details how mole Robert Hanssen was caught. In general, these videos are some of the most effective segments in the museum.

A ten-minute film on the 21st century and intelligence gathering in today's world concludes the museum portion. Like all good enterprises, the Spy Museum's exit goes straight through the knick-knack stuffed gift shop.

My verdict, then, is to take this place with a grain of salt. If you know a fair amount about famous spies and their roles in important historical events already, you'll probably find the International Spy Museum doesn't really add much to your appreciation. But for the average punter -- especially those attracted by the glamorous image of spies cultivated by Hollywood -- this will feel like an adventurous in-door theme park. Besides, doesn't nearly everybody want to see what a "rectal tool kit" looks like?

(Short answer: blessedly small!)

International Spy Museum
800 F St. NW
Washington, District of Columbia, 20004
(202) 393-7798

© LP 2000-2009