Cyber Command.
Eight-stage Cyber Command game tests visitors' ability to withstand an attack on "the next battlefield."

International Spy Museum

Field review by the editors.

Washington, DC

Our nation's capital has long frustrated tourists with roads designed for horse-and-buggy 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. 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.

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

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

The museum offers a blend of slick design, real spy gadgets, and, in its new incarnation, a measure of reflection. Is spying a necessary evil? What happens when spying goes wrong?

Visitors can opt to create a cover identity when they enter, then don an RFI lanyard that tracks them as they try the museum's two dozen interactive exhibits (When they exit, the museum tells them what kind of spy they should be). Even those who aren't tracked are welcome to crawl through an air duct, or scrutinize the social media posts of a suspected terrorist, or or contort themselves into "stress box" in the Enhanced Interrogation room. Another exhibit, designed to stoke paranoia, recreates an East German hotel room filled with hidden surveillance devices. There's also a section of a 1,500-foot-long tunnel dug under Berlin's Soviet sector to snoop on the Russians.

Simulated tunnel.

Familiar names in the history of espionage put in appearances -- Mata Hari, the Rosenbergs, Edward Snowden -- and unfamiliar ones as well, such as President George Washington and TV chef Julia Child (The museum displays her OSS shark repellent recipe). Propaganda gets its own wall, and there's a model of Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan that lights up to reveal covert intelligence clues. A mirrored hallway with a full-wall video screen -- the "Infinity Room" -- recreates the cacophony of a cyber attack.

Several of the museum's board members are retired spooks from the CIA, KGB, and MI5, so they knew where to find all of this museum's old cipher machines, booby traps, and itty-bitty cameras. Items of note include a fake pregnancy suit, a pigeon outfitted for aerial surveillance, and a dead, eviscerated rat, whose empty insides hid secret items passed between spies. An entire exhibit is devoted to James Bond (including his silver Aston Martin DB-5 from Goldfinger, with its JB007 rotating license plate), and the dark side of espionage is conveyed in artifacts such as a waterboard from Guantanamo Bay, the suicide needle carried by U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (he opted not to use it), and the pickax used to kill Leon Trotsky.

Torture and Interrogation gallery.
Torture and Interrogation gallery. In the back, the visitor-interactive "stress box."

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 9-7 (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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In the region:
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