Go Under Cover at D.C.’s Refreshed Spy Museum

Digital displays, interactive features have visitors playing secret agent

Debriefing Topic: A visit to the International Spy Museum with grandson Wyatt (12), sophisticated New York kid, sometime actor and video gamer. Plan of Action: If tech-savvy and competitive, hit screens and control buttons; if still thinking James Bond and Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, enjoy the stuff of movies and nostalgic tales. Conclusion: The fresh incarnation of this popular museum takes the woes and wonders of spycraft across demographics and into the 21st century.

Wyatt in Stress Box

In Spy vs. Spy, two birdlike characters engaged
 in outrageous cartoon scenarios. No doubt their combat and absurd survival teased the real-world dynamics of the Cold War. But in the digital age, intelligence operates with invisible players and at global scale, raising issues of privacy and government overreach. Knowing this, curators at the world’s largest public display of authentic spy paraphernalia now offer the trade’s “dark side” and do so with a mix of truth telling and show biz.

Steps from the National Mall, this $162-million landmark anchors the L’Enfant Plaza master plan. The 140,000-square-foot building signals the mission with its design—a “black box” veiled by glass. Find secrets within, yet expect transparency. Visitors enter through an atrium, pass beneath a “caveman” eyeing a drone and proceed to level five where, at briefing stations, each assumes a cover identity with an assigned task. A radio frequency tag gives access to the interactive challenges in circuitous arcades and, at the end, evaluates one’s undercover aptitudes.

The original museum in Washington’s Penn Quarter featured secret agents in the field and Hollywood. Still here are legendary spies like Josephine Baker, who hid French resistance fighters at her castle and crossed enemy lines with messages in her underwear, and Mata Hari, a Dutch-born dancer perhaps mistakenly executed in 1917 by the French for being a German spy. Former agents critique film clips of fictional spies like Jason Bourne and “The Americans,” while Morten Storm, who infiltrated Al Qaeda, recounts the actual danger among jihadists in Yemen.

Mata Hari Exhibit

To experience every interactive station would require many hours, so most choose their stops by what appeals (or has the shortest wait). Options range from successfully cracking a code in the days of Mary Queen of Scots to escaping through an air duct without being seen by “secret agents” below. At one station, two visitor “spies” must psyche each other out—will either of us trust or betray? And at a favorite stop, a former CIA deputy director leads his Red Team of visitors through the hunt and capture of Osama bin Laden. Their screen inputs match the actual process of then-President Barack Obama and his advisers.

Red Team Interactive

Fascinating spy gear pops up throughout. Wartime required some cool inventions like the WW2 submersible, ship-destroying canoe called “sleeping beauty” and the German Enigma machine whose code was broken by British mathematician Alan (“The Imitation Game”) Turing. Undercover work inspires objects like a gun in a lipstick, Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB5, Ninja “shooting star” weapons hidden in the hand, a Navy Seal’s “five-seconds-to-don” mask, the Dragon fly “listener,” the Black Hornet surveillance drone, a suicide needle in a silver dollar and even a female spy’s faux “pregnant belly” that concealed a camera.

Now the new incarnation adds even more real-life drama and controversy. Galleries illuminate (but take no partisan positions on) contemporary headlines—the exposure of government secrets (think Snowden), techniques of “enhanced interrogation” like waterboarding and the ethics of remote and military surveillance. A “mirror room” simulates the terrifying “battlefield”
of cyber attack, surrounding visitors with the “digital dust” of an intelligence cosmos. And yet the Wyatt-picked highlight? Touching a slab of the wall that once blocked passage between East and West Berlin. An ancient defense raises emotion in current times.

Jean Lawlor Cohen
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