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Cold War Berlin: hot destination for spies. Menacing guard and dog are on a video screen.
Cold War Berlin: hot destination for spies. Menacing guard and dog are on a video screen.

International Spy Museum

Field review by the editors.

Washington, DC

Our nation's capital, with its 18th century road system and corporate lobbyist hotel rates, has often been a headache for tourists -- but at least the museums were free. That changed when the International Spy Museum (run by a private nonprofit, not the federal government) opened in 2002 and dared to charge admission. Pundits were skeptical, but the museum has thrived, thanks to an intriguing subject, good presentation, and a local base of self-interested visitors. Washington, according to the museum, has more spies than any other city on earth.

"Five Second Face" mask provided a near-instant disguise.

In fact, the museum was so successful that in 2019 it moved into a new $162 million building with more than twice the floor space.

The museum offers a blend of slick design, real spy gadgets, and a lot of "experiential" displays that have visitors watching videos, tapping screens, and deactivating a nuclear bomb. That last example is unusual -- most spies don't get to defuse ticking nukes -- but the museum does try to inject occasional Hollywood-style escapism into what has become a serious subject.

KGB lipstick gun was used for assassinations.
KGB lipstick gun was used for assassinations.

After paying admission, visitors take an elevator to the fifth floor where they can opt to wear an RFID lanyard that spies on them as they wend their way down through the galleries, floor after floor, to the gift shop. When they exit, the museum evaluates their performance and tells them what kind of spy they should be. Visitors who don't want to be tracked are still welcome to tackle the various espionage-themed activities, such as lock-picking and code-breaking.

Glass cases along the gallery walls are filled with real spy tools, which the museum says is "the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display." Several of the museum's board members are retired spooks from the CIA, KGB, and MI6, so they knew where to find all of the old cipher machines, booby traps, and itty-bitty cameras -- although it's noted that smartphones have made many clandestine tracking and surveillance devices superfluous.

World War I German spy-pigeon and camera.
World War I German spy-pigeon and camera.

Phony scrotum and its tiny radio transmitter.
Phony scrotum and its tiny radio transmitter.

Some of these relics are almost quaint, such as a pigeon outfitted for aerial surveillance, and a fake scrotum that concealed a radio transmitter. By contrast, modern-day cyber warfare is depicted as maddeningly awful, in a mirrored hallway bombarded with visual static and sound. And there's nothing charming about the "rectal tool kit" -- an uncomfortably large capsule packed with tiny lock-picks and hacksaws.

Displays have titles such as "Escape and Evasion," "Masters of Deception," and "Surveillance and Countersurveillance." The "Covert Action" exhibit features a World War II mini-submarine and a giant diagram of the Trojan Horse. The Berlin gallery has chunks of the Wall, a section of a tunnel that burrowed under the Soviet sector, and a life-size video of a threatening guard demanding to see your papers. One exhibit, certain to stoke paranoia, recreates an East German interrogation room whose goal was to make victims sweat. If you weren't imprisoned, the police would keep swatches of your chair fabric in "scent jars" (also on display) that could later be used with dogs to track you down.

Stroll down the clangorous hallway of cyber warfare.
Stroll down the clangorous hallway of cyber warfare.

Peek-a-boo! Brassiere camera for spies in dresses.
Peek-a-boo! Brassiere camera for spies in dresses.

The lethal side of espionage can be seen in an assassination weapon disguised as a lipstick tube ("The Kiss of Death"), and a suicide needle hidden in a silver dollar carried by U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (he opted not to use it). The sawed-off ice axe used in 1940 to assassinate Russian-Ukrainian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky has its own display, which notes that a Mexican museum official kept it under his daughter's bed for 40 years, and calls attention to a bloody fingerprint that's still on the blade.

Familiar names in the history of espionage put in appearances -- the Rosenbergs, Edward Snowden, Mata Hari (you can see her flimsy filigree metal bra) -- and unexpected ones as well, such as George Washington and TV chef Julia Child (The museum displays her OSS recipe for shark repellent). The metal jaws worn by James Bond villain Richard "Jaws" Kiel are bizarre, but, so, too, is Bond's weaponized 1964 Aston Martin DB5, which, according to its display, inspired spy agencies to at least consider installing tire slashers, machine guns, and rotating license plates on their agents' cars.

The International Spy Museum makes an earnest effort to be respectable, but do visitors really want to ponder questions of policy and ethics, or just gawk at the poison-spike umbrella? The museum may want to temper our geekish enthusiasm for espionage, but its outrageous apparati -- lovingly showcased -- will always be as seductive as a secret agent: the shoe with a hidden microphone; the "five second face" pull-on mask; and a dead, eviscerated rat, whose empty carcass hid secret messages passed between spies.

Also see: KGB Espionage Museum

International Spy Museum

700 L'Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC
Two blocks south of the National Mall, on the east side of 10th St. SW/L'Enfant Plaza, SW, just south of its intersection with D St. SW.
Daily 10-6 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $25.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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