Coldest Place on Earth.

International Spy Museum

Field review by the editors.

Washington, DC

Our nation's capital has long frustrated travelers with roads designed for horse travel and hotel rates geared for corporate lobbyists -- but at least most of its museums were free. That changed in 2002, when the International Spy Museum -- run by a company, not the government -- opened and dared to charge admission. Locals were skeptical, but the museum has thrived, thanks to an intriguing subject, good presentation, and a perfect location. Washington, according to the museum's own introductory video, has more spies than any other city on earth.

Spy Museum gallery.

The museum is much larger than it appears from the outside, and offers a blend of slick design and lots of real spy gadgets. You enter through a crowd-control airlock where you're invited to adopt a "cover" ID, then enter the "Briefing Room" where you're asked, "Did you ever wonder if you could be a spy? What is it that might attract you?" Then the doors open and, whoosh, you're dumped into the rest of the museum to find those answers on your own.

The International Spy Museum is one of the new wave of loud museums, much closer in decibel level to a video arcade than the Smithsonian. Speakers broadcast a constant cacophony of spies telling their stories, barking news clips, sirens, blaring music, etc. There's no opportunity for hushed reflection, which perhaps mimics the noisy, multi-tasking brain of the average spy.

The extensive "School For Spies" gallery has aluminum walls, which suggests that you're in a super-secret subterranean lair. An "Incredible Shrinking Bug" display reveals the miniaturization of eavesdropping devices, while an exhibit on concealment features a baboon mask worn by Maurice Evans in the original Planet of the Apes movie (it was designed by an artist who also disguised American spies and received a secret CIA medal in gratitude).

Sikh spy disguise.
Sikh spy disguise.

The museum showcases many historical espionage items, although most of them date to only around 1980. Are the newer ones too secret, or just too tiny to exhibit?

Some that caught our eye:

  • One of only two pairs of pants worn by CIA officer Bill Daugherty during his 444 days of captivity in Iran
  • The "Kiss of Death" Lipstick Pistol used by the KGB in the 1960s
  • The Bulgarian assassination umbrella of 1978
  • A lump of fake coal, packed with powerful explosives, that detonated when innocently shoveled into a furnace
  • CIA eyeglasses with built-in cyanide so that nibbling would kill

James Bond's Aston Martin DB-5 automatically cycles through its custom features -- bulletproof trunk shield, rotating license plates, turn-signal machine guns -- while an accompanying sign proudly notes that many automobile "spy gizmos" such as anti-theft devices and electronic door locks are today "standard on many commercial vehicles."

Spy Pigeon, equipped with camera.
Spy Pigeon, equipped with camera.

Several of the museum's board members are retired spies from the CIA, KGB, and MI5, so they knew where to find all of these old cipher machines, booby traps, and itty-bitty cameras. The ex-spooks' oversight also gives this museum a workmanlike approach, like the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Spies are just folks -- admittedly unusual folks -- just doing their job.

Interactive exhibits encourage visitors to test their powers of observation. "Threat Analysis," flashes a series of random encounters on a video screen and demands that you slap either a green, yellow, or red ("hostile surveillance") button. "Ready, set, identify!" a voice commands. "Old woman with camera. She may look nonthreatening. But why is she pointing her camera at you?"

Emblem of the International Spy Museum.

The museum views this as useful exercise in "heightening awareness," but it made us a little paranoid. Peter Earnest, executive director of the museum (and an ex-spy), tried to reassure us. "The person with a camera, you can probably ignore," he said. "That's too obvious. It's when they take out their pen and point that at you that you should get a little worried."

The "Losing The Secret" room resembles a stylistic atomic pile and flashes red when America's a-bomb plans are betrayed to the Soviets. A groovy Googie-style room showcases spy toys from James Bond, Get Smart, The Man From UNCLE, and Austin Powers. The "Doorway to Hell" exhibit recreates a communist interrogator's office with a secret entrance to a secret prison; people would walk in and never come out.

Downstairs, a sullen concrete-and-barbed-wire design recreates Cold War Berlin. Among its features is a replica of a tunnel dug under the Soviet sector to snoop on the Russians. A washer and dryer are displayed, since the diggers would launder their clothes to hide their work before returning to the surface. This over-engineered solution -- perhaps typical of spies -- baffled us. Why didn't they just bring a spare pair of clothes? "It's a good question," said Peter.

In the gift shop, visitors can buy "Envelope X-Ray Spray" to read the contents of sealed letters, and tiny (but pricey) cameras built into watches, sunglasses, and belt buckles. A gift shop worker told us that the watch camera was among the store's most popular items.

International Spy Museum

800 F St. NW, Washington, DC
In the downtown museum district, six blocks east of the White House and five blocks north of the National Mall. On the south side of F St. just east of 9th St.
Daily 9 am - 6 pm. (Call to verify)
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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