Friday, February 17, 2017

Spy vs. Spy at the International Spy Museum

Afraid that someone had heard me, I froze in place. I felt a little claustrophobic hunched down on my hands and knees inside the air duct I was crawling through. Catching a glimpse of the people in the room below me, I hoped that no one would look up and notice my face staring out through the hole in the vent. I strained my ears to try and pick up threads of conversation from the cacophony rising up from the crowd, praying that I would not be discovered and my cover blown. World traveler, expat trailing spouse, mom to three kids, prone to occasional bouts of daftness. It's the perfect cover for a spy.

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." 

Tricked out Aston Martin DB5
(If I was trying to be inconspicuous, I would choose another license plate.)

Except...well... I'm not really a spy. (That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.) So what was I doing crawling around in an air duct? It was part of my fun visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. After a few days of visiting the Smithsonian, monuments, the White House and Capitol Hill, it was time for something different.

Opened in 2002, the museum's Board of Directors and Advisory Council is filled with former members of the FBI, CIA, KGB and MI5. I wish I could eavesdrop on their meetings. "Hey Boris, remember the time when..." The museum's stated mission is to "educate the public about espionage and intelligence in an engaging way and to provide a context that fosters understanding of their important role in and impact on current and historic events" in an apolitical and impartial way.

Choose a cover ID

At the start of our visit, we were invited to assume a cover ID and memorize their details. I assumed the identity of Le Van Ha, a 50-year-old molecular biologist en route to Bonn, Germany. As we made our way through the rest of the museum, interactive kiosks offered us a chance to take on a mission and then elude detection -- mainly by memorizing details and not forgetting them. Sure, you can always take a photo with your phone, but I suspect that real spies don't pull out a cheat sheet when questioned. We practiced identifying who was a threat and where potential drop sights were. The best part was crawling through the air duct above the display cases. Alas, my cover was blown, and I failed. I wonder if visitors who do really well get a little visit from a CIA recruiter later.

Ah yes, the old telephone disguised as a shoe trick.

My favorite section of the museum, and the one where I lingered the longest, was Tricks of the Trade. While the entrance features fictitious Maxwell Smart from TV's Get Smart, many of the items on display were used for real life spying. Nothing is more recent than the 1980's though, probably because showing off your best spy gear is not an intelligent move. The only thing that could have made this better is if Q from the James Bond movies showed me around.

Hiding multiple people in an escape car

Small camera hidden in a wristwatch and the reflection of my own camera

Even a child's toy can be a spy device

Bugging out with wooden blocks and men's shoes

Assassination weapons disguised as ordinary objects

One of the most interesting displays was about disguises -- real ones, not computer generated disguises where the person rips off the rubber mask, and you realize it was Tom Cruise all along. John Chambers has had an interesting career as a prosthetic makeup artist. He is a recipient of both an Oscar award and the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit. Chambers made a name for himself in Hollywood by creating the masks for the original Planet of the Apes movies and creating Spock's pointy ears for Star Trek. He also worked for the CIA to create disguise kits which are on display at the museum. The 2012 award-winning film Argo tells the story of the 1980 rescue mission of six Americans from Tehran with John Goodman playing the role of Chambers. 

How to become a master of disguise

The museum also covers fictional spies, especially a rather large section about the most famous one of them all, 007 James Bond. I enjoyed it, but as my kids pointed out, it's less fun if your mom never lets you watch any James Bond movies. There's a replica of the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 driven by Bond in Goldfinger and the tarantula from Dr. No among tons of other exhibits. (Sidenote: I was watching that tarantula scene from Dr. No on TV while lying on the couch at home, and my mind kept playing tricks on me to make me think something was crawling on the couch. I ignored my silly brain and kept watching. Low and behold, I finally realized there was a huge scorpion about to crawl on me, then screamed loudly and rolled onto the floor to safety.)

A Civil War era cipher wheel
(in which H=H, I=I, J=J, etc.)

There's also a historic section which covers the history and significance of spying. One item was a Confederate Army cipher disk circa 1862 from the American Civil War. By turning the wheel, the spy could create a simple displacement code to encrypt their written messages. I did think that the display would be more impressive if the letters weren't aligned correctly while in the case. One of the most fascinating objects was a 1944 World War II Enigma machine used by the Germans. After reading how these portable cipher machines encrypted information and how Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park cracked the code, interactive stations let visitors try their own hand at virtual Enigma machines.

The museum exits into a gift shop, of course, where you can by all sorts of toy spy gadgets, historical books, and gag gifts. Note that the store personnel do not like if your 6 foot tall child dons a balaclava and walks around wearing it. Don't ask me how I know. I'll never tell. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit the the International Spy Museum. If you're bringing along the 10 years and younger crowd, ask for the Family Guide scavenger hunt or download it here. For people with longer attention spans, there's a ton of information to read on all the plaques. You'll definitely feel like you've learned something. If the exhibits aren't enough for you, the museum also offers Spy Experiences and missions for you to complete within the museum or even in the surrounding neighborhood. 

Do you think you have what it takes to become a spy?

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  1. oh yes, I have:) I'd be a great spy:)) #wkdtravelinspiration

  2. The spy museum sounds very interesting. I like all the old spy paraphernalia.

  3. This museum sounds fun and especially interesting given the age we live in. Its on my list for my next trip to DC.

  4. How fun! A kids toy truck used to spy - how inventive! Definitely would love to give this a go when I'm in DC.

  5. I want to go here soooo bad. I know it would be a blast. Love your pics, even if I am a bit jealous!

  6. What an interesting museum. I don't know if I would like to be stuck in a tube (I'm claustrophobic too), but I would imagine that for children this must be a very entertaining place to visit. Beautiful pictures, Michelle!

  7. I can imagine this museum would be fun to explore with friends. Sounds like you had a fun day with the kids.

  8. Loved your intro - it really set the scene. How much fun would that be!

  9. I love this and my son would now love this. A few years back our local science museum had a spy museum set up in their special display area. Sadly my son was a little too young at the time to get the most out of it.

  10. This sounds like so much fun. Get Smart was one of my favorite TV shows back in the day. Your scorpion adventure made me jump! :)

  11. This is a fun museum. My husband and i went when it first opened, but I'm sure it's evolved. I've been waiting to Tiny Traveler to be old enough to get it. we're almost there!

  12. Oh wow! I never knew about this museum. I would definitely go, if I ever got the chance to travel to Washington DC. Sounds like so much fun! Great post... with some very witty side comments. Lol!

  13. I love the spy Museum! One of my favorite museums :)

  14. This is so neat and looks so sun to explore! We can probably stay a whole day here and would love to do the spy experiences too. There's always so much to see and do in DC that we've never done anything beyond the monuments and Smithsonian. We'll actually be in DC for a day this summer on a stopover. Hoping they're open late!


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