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A Top Secret International Spy Museum Review

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The International Spy Museum was on the top of my bucket list when I visited Washington DC in summer 2019! I’ve always been so intrigued by Spycraft that I had to check out this museum for myself. At the time, it was brand new, so please keep in mind this International Spy Museum review may be slightly dated as I see they have since added to their exhibits, but I nonetheless believe it’ll provide you several reasons why to visit on your next trip to DC.

What is the International Spy Museum?

The museum features interactive exhibits on Spycraft but also encourages visitors to grapple with the very real issues of intelligence failures, surveillance, and torture. I’ve rarely visited a museum that straddled so well the line of being engaging to its audience and also introspective of its own ethical controversies.

James Bond, Ethan Hunt, James Bourne, Jack Ryan, Sydney Bristow, and my favorite, Evelyn Salt, have certainly evoked intrigue, suspense, and heroism in our minds. However, learning about their real-life inspirations was even more fascinating as the museum showcases many of the undercover operations and clever gadgetry used by real spies.

You’ll even get to see and listen to video clips from members of the CIA, the military, legal professionals, former NSA officials, and more.

Below, you’ll find an honest International Spy Museum review based on the recount of my visit.

Level 5: The Briefing Center

As I did, my International Spy Museum review begins on the fifth floor at the Briefing Center. Here, you’ll receive a new cover identity along with an RFID-enabled badge, which will track your spy skills on eight undercover missions throughout the museum. Each is identified with an Undercover Mission logo.

They include skills like blending into your environment, creating an info-gathering gadget, and uncovering hidden dead drops. I didn’t complete the whole eight missions as I spent more time reading each little plague next to artifacts, but if you’re with children, I think this would keep them entertained as I saw many children enjoying it.

Stealing Secrets

My favorite museum section was the Stealing Secrets area, as it touched on some notorious faces, such as Mata Hari. If you don’t know, Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan convicted of being a German spy during World War I. She was later executed by firing squad in France for spying. I find her fascinating as, during this period of history, women hardly are noted in roles as daring as Spycraft. Even today, as I write this International Spy Museum review, the list of even fictional female spies is far shorter than that of the men.

Another notable female spy is Rose O’Neal, who was a Confederate spymaster during the Civil War. As a socialite in Washington, D.C., Rose ran in influential political circles and befriended presidents, senators, and high-ranking military officers. She developed a system of enciphering secret messages to send along her “Secret Line” via couriers who carried military and government secrets. Even after she and her daughter were imprisoned, she continued her espionage, declaring,

“God gave me both a brain and a body, and I shall use them both…”

This exhibit also features the work of other spies, spymasters, gadget makers, scientists, engineers, and hundreds of fascinating inventions used to steal secrets. 

Ben Whishaw at Q in James Bond

The Real Life Q

Recall Q in the Bond films? When spies need to collect information on a target, they turn to Technical Operations or Tech Ops team members. In this exhibit, you’ll meet inventors, engineers, scientists, computer whizzes, artists, and tinkerers who create the mind-blowing devices agents and handlers need.

Covert Critters at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC

Pigeons are a Spy’s Best Friend

A Pigeon Camera was one of the most surprising items in this section of the museum. During World War I, pigeons were outfitted with cameras and released over enemy territory. As they flew, the cameras snapped photos.

Prized for their speed and ability to return home in any weather, pigeons have carried tiny cargo for decades. Of the hundreds of thousands of carrier pigeons sent through enemy fire, 95% completed their missions. Since the earliest days of espionage, pigeons have been a spy’s best friend. Who knew?

The Great Seal and Tree Stump at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC

“The Thing” Listening In

Another one of my favorites was The Great Seal. In 1945, a group of Soviet children visited the US Embassy in Moscow and gave the Ambassador a hand-carved Great Seal of the US. It stayed in his office until 1952 when technicians discovered a listening device inside.

Dubbed “The Thing” by US technicians, as no battery or circuits were inside, how it transmitted was a mystery. After two months, British Tech Ops finally discovered that it was a “passive cavity resonator,” activated by a radio beam from a van outside. So when people spoke, sound waves entered through tiny holes under the eagle’s beak, which vibrated a membrane that modulated the radio beam, bouncing it back as an audio signal to the people listening in the van. This was so bananas I had to include it in my International Spy Museum review.

Stumped by Spycraft

Lastly, the other item that stood out to me was a Tree Stump Listening Device. This solar-powered faux-stump intercepted radar and communications signals. US intelligence designed the device to look like a tree stump and planted it in a wooded area near Moscow to eavesdrop on radar and communications from a nearby Soviet airbase.

The Brains of Bletchley Alan Turing Machine at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC

Making Sense of Secrets

The next exhibit helps visitors understand how secret information is turned into useful intelligence. It covers the whole gamut of devices, from ancient times to recent quantum computers, and how they are used to hide the real meaning of messages. It also features real cryptologists like Alan Turing, who famously cracked puzzles. If you’ve watched The Imitation Game, you’ll recall Turing’s immense contributions to WWII.

This exhibit also shows the role analysts play in solving intelligence problems. They elaborately present what CIA analysts faced during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And can watch Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, present the known facts as a model of the suspected compound lights up to indicate clues.

Invented by Thomas Jefferson, this wheel decipher was a way to transfer messages between allies using a special code

Ciphers from Across Decades

A spike in the interest of ciphers came with the publication of the Da Vinci Code and, of course, the film. But they have a history that starts well before that. There’s a Jefferson Cipher Disk you can see at the museum that dates from 1790.

Invented by Thomas Jefferson, this wheel decipher was a way to transfer messages between allies using a special code. The cipher was a secure method to encode and decode messages. Nearly 150 years later, the U.S. Army used a similar device, the M-94, to encrypt messages until early in World War II.

Covert Action

The Covert Action exhibit showcases the techniques leaders use to influence events abroad via covert missions, sabotage, and lethal action. It features stories such as Operation Gunnerside, the WWII Allied effort to prevent Germans from building a nuclear bomb, and a variety of sabotage artifacts.

They also showcase the classic deception techniques used to make a force appear stronger or to hide in plain sight—strategies still used today. You can learn about the deadly plots in which governments eliminate spies or enemies of the state. This exhibit touches on plots to overthrow regimes and wreck economies. It also includes examples of government attempts to manipulate public opinion across history, from Ancient Egypt to the 2016 US presidential election.

The last item I’ll mention in my International Spy Museum review is the Lipstick Pistol, which was used by KGB operatives during the Cold War. The 4.5 mm, single-shot weapon was small enough to be slipped past guards. It fired by pressing the barrel into the victim, delivering the ultimate “kiss of death.” It is reminiscent of Marvel’s Agent Carter, which disguised a sleep-inducing compound into a Sweet Dreams Lipstick.

America’s first spymaster George Washington at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC

Level 4: Spying that Shaped History

Move one floor down, and you’ll find yourself in the Spying that Shaped History exhibit, where you’ll meet America’s first spymaster—George Washington. You’ll learn how he used the power of espionage to outsmart and outmaneuver the British. Are you truly surprised after watching Hamilton?

This exhibit also explores the balance between the secrecy needed to operate a spy agency and the openness necessary for an effective democracy. It even touches on the power of propaganda, sabotage, economic interference, and political meddling. Comparing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terror attacks illustrates some of the challenges analysts face in delivering warnings that leaders can act on and the consequences of getting it wrong.

Finally, there’s a section that reflects upon pop culture’s depiction of Spycraft over the last hundred years. Visitors can listen to intelligence officers comment on the reality and fiction in much-beloved spy movies.

An Uncertain World

This final gallery explores responses to threats, how governments initiate protections to them, and how that level of protection can be the difference between living in security or an oppressive security state. It also takes a last look at intelligence insiders who pose a threat to their own countries, terrorism, the Cold War, and Russian spies in the US.

Lastly, this exhibit explores one of the earliest counterintelligence systems in Renaissance Venice, how Western spies stole the secrets of silk, porcelain, and tea from China, and how China now leads in stealing economic secrets from the West.

My International Spy Museum Review

At the end of the tour, which took me about two hours, I received a debrief, which told me how well I did on my undercover mission and my top skills. Unfortunately, I can’t recall what mine were, but do comment if you visit with yours! You’ll also “meet” a real spy with similar skills and learn how they used your top skill in the field.

Located near the National Mall, it was interesting to see how Spycraft was depicted at the International Spy Museum in the shadow of the government looming nearby. I also discovered just how close or far from reality Spycraft is from the world of fiction—closer than I suspected in some instances. The museum helped me better understand what intelligence agencies do, and I hope my International Spy Museum review helped you as well.

The Internation Spy Museum website recommends buying tickets in advance as visitors may experience a wait when purchasing onsite. You can also save 30% by purchasing online in advance.

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