WASHINGTON - The familiar sleek lines of James Bond’s Aston Martin greet visitors in the modern glass lobby of the new International Spy Museum, a welcome nod to the institution’s entertaining roots. But suspended overhead is an Amber drone, precursor of the CIA’s remotely piloted Predator aircraft and an early clue that the new version brings a little edge to the fun and games.
The popular Washington attraction reopened last month at 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW – above 10th Street and halfway between the National Mall and the Wharf – with a similar ratio of interactive adventures to historical artifacts that made the original D.C. site a favorite since it opened in 2002.
The new iteration has plenty of gadgets, games and pop culture references. But it digs into heavier topics, too, with exhibitions focused on the use of torture in interrogations, the psychology behind the agent-handler relationship and the ethics of mass surveillance.
“A lot has changed in the last 17 years. We are able to update the stories, to leverage technologies that weren’t around 17 years ago,” says Christopher Costa, a retired colonel who is the museum’s executive director. “If we do our job, people will be incredibly entertained and not realize they are thinking and learning.”
Closed since January to move across town into a space roughly twice the size of the original, the museum features two floors of permanent exhibitions – divided into “how we spy” and “why we spy” – and will also feature rotating exhibits.
Many displays are rooted in historic events, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the bombing in Oklahoma City. There are stories of real-life traitors, coldblooded assassinations, spy swaps and dramatic rescues. Videos and interactive games smartly feature real agents and top intelligence leaders, whose stories emphasize the gravity and danger of the situations.
Interactive games – some multiplayer – include creating a disguise, examining unconscious bias and more. An upgraded version of the kid-favorite “Operation Spy” immersive experience will be added in the future. The new space boasts a theater, classrooms and a gift shop, but no restaurant (there are many dining options in the nearby plaza food court). Two event spaces – including one on the roof – will host public programs and private events.
Visitors could spend hours in the galleries, which are bursting with dozens of videos, interactive stations and almost 1,000 artifacts, but here are a few highlights.
Five new things not to miss
Tunnel under Berlin: A segment of a 1,476-foot-long tunnel built under Berlin in the 1950s is one of the largest of the artifacts on display. A critical part of an American/British mission, the tunnel provided access from West to East Berlin to tap into Soviet communication lines. The Soviets knew about the operation from an agent embedded in British intelligence, but they allowed it to continue to avoid compromising him.
Red teaming: The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound provides the setting for an interactive exercise led by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell to challenge the conclusions and test the theories that had been assembled by their intelligence departments. Morell, who was part of the intelligence team that worked on the case, guides players through a set of questions and theories – a practice known as red teaming – aimed at testing assumptions, finding holes in theories and deciding a course of action. What is the significance of the walled driveway? What can be inferred from the compound’s burning of all garbage? Who else might take these precautions? These and other issues are analyzed with audio, video and a model of the compound. Together they make for a compelling exhibit.
Cyber: The new battlefield: The complex field of cyber attacks is given a sci-fi treatment in the dizzying Infinity Room, a mirrored box with a full-wall video screen that places visitors inside a computer attack. Its swirling graphics and images can be disorienting, but they are effective in illustrating complicated technology. Computer experts and analysts explain how the tactics are used, and how they can be prevented.
Enhanced interrogation: A yellow caution sign outside this gallery warns visitors of its serious nature, but even that might not prepare them for the no-holds-barred content. A waterboard kit and a stress box (a wooden structure that confines an individual in a crouching position) are presented, and wall text explores the definition of torture.
But the strongest element is a video that attempts to answer the central question: Does it work? Malcolm Nance, a retired Navy specialist who was an instructor in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, forcefully denounces waterboarding in a video interview. Countering him is Jose A. Rodriguez, former director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA, who states without equivocation that the practice resulted in intelligence that saved lives.
“Much like intelligence agents, we don’t take sides, we deliver facts,” Costa said.
Top secret: Secrets kept, secrets revealed: Another of the edgy galleries, this exhibit digs into the inherent tensions of spying in a democracy. The cases of Julius Rosenberg and Edward Snowden are used to examine government engagement in secret activities and what happens when the secrets are revealed.
“It’s a direct departure from the old museum,” curator Vince Houghton said about these new displays. “These are controversial, and we have to present them in the most apolitical way possible.”
Five favorites that are back (and better than before)
Undercover mission: The museum’s popular Covers and Legends concept has been upgraded with Radio Frequency Identification technology that is integrated into the entire experience. Visitors create cover identities at briefing stations, and can test their skills and complete tasks throughout the museum, and learn their results in a final debriefing.
The air duct: Crawl through an even longer air duct, trying to make your escape without anyone detecting, or attempt to crack a secret code and get a view from the ground of others attempting a getaway.
Spies among us: Chef and cookbook author Julia Child and filmmaker John Ford are among the famous and surprising people who were involved in spycraft. Other surprising stories involve Josephine Baker, Harpo Marx and Coco Chanel.
Fun spy gadgets: The crazy tools of the trade – from the guns hidden in lipstick and cigarette packs to cameras disguised as buttons – are back on view. They are joined by a host of new artifacts, including the disguise kit owned by the late Tony Mendez (the mastermind portrayed in the movie “Argo”); a suicide needle hidden in a silver dollar, and a Russian version of a robo-bug, a device shaped as a dragonfly that could be maneuvered to plant listening devices.
Bond and beyond: Pop culture’s version of spies – such as James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Elizabeth and Philip Jennings of “The Americans” – is explored in a gallery that features clips of top performances and commentary by real-life agents.
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