International Spy Museum
800 F Street, N.W.
Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown (red, green and yellow lines)
Adult tickets: $14
Student tickets: $13 (special price available through Dec. 23)
There are spies in the ventilation ducts. They’re moving too fast, breaking their cover with each loud clunk. It’s easy to follow the sound across the ceiling, simple to figure out where the moles will emerge. Then two young girls stampede out into the open, yelling “That was so cool!” to their mother and “Let’s do it again!” to each other.
Mom doesn’t seem to mind. She’s engrossed with an object that looks like a tube of lipstick but was really used as a 4.5 mm single shot pistol.
The International Spy Museum possesses an almost universal appeal, and nearly 750,000 people a year have flocked in since it opened in 2002. Located a few blocks from four Metro train stations in Washington’s Penn Quarter area, the museum boasts the largest collection of real espionage artifacts placed on public display in the world. It also hosts lectures and workshops by real spies, authors and military veterans.
“[Espionage] is sexy and intriguing,” says Anna Slafer, director of education and programming at the Spy Museum. “It’s something people don’t really know a lot about.”
“Not only that, but it’s been hidden from them,” says Peter Earnest, the museum’s executive director. Today’s headlines are also raising interest in the museum, he says. From the recent reformation of intelligence and creation of the Department of Homeland Security to the widespread criticism that “a lot of people failed us on [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq,” espionage and intelligence is a very current topic.
Earnest received the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for “superior performance” in 36 years of service in the organization. This included over 20 years in the Clandestine Service during the Cold War, where he says he was “deeply involved with influence operations” in the Middle East and Europe. He would later become the CIA’s director of media relations and a strong advocate of openness with the public.
“I’ve always believed that the people ought to know where their tax dollars are going,” Earnest says. It’s one of the main reasons he took his current job at the museum.
The museum teaches mainly through interactivity. Guests are introduced to espionage via video in a briefing room and are encouraged to adopt a cover identity. Disguised with a new name, guests head into the “School for Spies” to examine photographs for suspicious activity, listen in on bugged conversations via telephone and operate ultraviolet lights to reveal hidden messages on ordinary letters.
“If you do all those things, you won’t come out of here a spy,” Earnest says, “but you certainly will pick up a little of the lingo and a little bit of how a spy might think.”
Visitors are then exposed to an assortment of real spy gadgets, including a buttonhole camera and a poison-pellet loaded umbrella the KGB used to assassinate a dissident in London.
Next, visitors explore the “secret history” of espionage. The museum reveals historical figures like George Washington as master spies, highlights legendary female spies like Mata Hari and examines the importance of intelligence in World War II and the Cold War. The museum finally brings visitors back into the present with a film discussing the challenges facing intelligence professionals worldwide in the 21st Century.
The museum itself is situated within five historic buildings, the oldest dating back to 1875. One housed the former headquarters of the regional U.S. Communist Party from 1941 to 1948. The original door leading to these offices was preserved and is on display in the museum’s Cold War section.
Earnest is partial to a room about homing pigeons used in World War I to collect photographs of the enemy. He says the stuffed pigeon on display “looks like a little lonely American tourist in Paris on a rainy day.” The area contains an actual photograph taken from the bird in flight.
“I like to think of the pigeon as sort of in the path between the cavemen and satellites,” Earnest says. “The principles of espionage have remained the same since the first caveman climbed a tree to see if his neighbor was finding better nuts than he was. Climbing a tree was a form of aerial reconnaissance. You had that as a running cord throughout the centuries. There were the balloons in the Civil War and the pigeons in World War I. Then the great breakthroughs of the Cold War were first the U2 SR-71 high-flying aircraft, and then geosynchronous satellites.”
The museum supplements its permanent collection with an active programming schedule. Four events are usually hosted each month, three for adults and one for kids.
“We can cover stuff that we really skim the surface of in the museum,” Slafer says. “We can also deal with faster changing issues and hot topics like terrorism.”
Lectures are generally either free or cost about $15, but the museum also has several higher-priced, hands-on events. Lectures by Robert Hampton of the FBI and a woman who worked for the French Resistance in World War II were two of the museum’s most popular programs.
In recent workshop, “Surveillance 101,” two espionage experts led 40 adults out on the streets of Washington, teaching them some tricks of the trade. On Oct. 23, professional make-up artists, hair stylists and spy experts will help kids perfect their undercover disguises in “Operation Undercover: Secrets of Disguise.”
The International Spy Museum’s popularity will likely continue growing as new attractions spring up in Penn Quarter in the next few years. By 2007 there will be a new Shakespeare theater, portrait gallery and FBI tour to further attract tourists off of the Mall.
Earnest says he is optimistic. The museum awes visitors of all ages, and like the spies-in-training charging through the ventilation ducts, “the place is jumping.”