Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Spy?

by Gray Cargill on June 10, 2015

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Are you a fan of spy thrillers? I am. I used to devour books like that when I was younger, and have enjoyed numerous movies and TV shows about spies. So when I was prioritizing my activities in Washington DC last October, the International Spy Museum was high on my list. It turned out to be a perfect rainy day activity in Washington.

The Spy Museum was even more interesting than I expected it to be. Turns out all the spy gadgets I’ve seen in spy shows over my lifetime, from James Bond to Mission Impossible to Alias to Get Smart, have their genesis in reality. The geek in me was like a kid in a candy store looking at all the displays of gadgets spies have used over the years to obtain and transmit information.

Attache recording device

Attache recording device

The museum has a great collection of artifacts with information about when and how they were used, from fake, hollowed-out rocks that can be used as dead drops (places where one spy leaves information for another) to eyeglasses with cyanide capsules, from lipstick guns to cameras hidden in coat buttons, they all exist and have been used by spies in the past. I thought Hollywood just had a vivid imagination. Not so much.

The museum takes a look at spying throughout history, going back as far as Biblical times (!), through the Elizabethan era, the World Wars, the Cold War and modern times. There’s even a letter here written by the infamous Mata Hari. I was surprised to see that there were famous celebrities and entertainers who did a little spying themselves. During World War II, actress Marlena Dietrich worked for the OSS, a US intelligence agency (their generation’s version of the CIA). American League baseball player Moe Berg was also a spy during WWII.

Fake Rock

Spies would use fake, hollowed-out rocks like this as dead drops to exchange information.

The most fun part of the museum was the James Bond section, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains.” Seeing the plots of all the movies in one place makes you realize just how campy they are. The exhibit features movie props and clips from the various films. I have complicated feelings about Bond films; I haven’t liked the way most women have been treated in these movies (particularly the earlier years), but there have been some great exceptions in more recent years, like roles played by Michelle Yeoh and Dame Judi Dench. But even I can’t deny that the spy gadgets in these films are pretty cool, and the emphasis on the villains in this exhibit is interesting.

Bond Villains Exhibit

The Bond Villains Exhibit is good, campy fun.

The museum also has an interactive element to it, where you can listen to transmissions, test your ability to notice things (a key trait for a spy), etc. At the beginning of the museum, you have to adopt a persona from among about 20 that are offered and memorize as much as you can of the details about their “cover”. Toward the end of the museum, you take a quiz as you’re “leaving the country” to determine if you can sell the fake persona or not to the authorities.

I thought I did a pretty good job choosing a cover–she was a German, and since I took five years of German in school, I figured I could fake enough German to pass scrutiny. (But as it turns out, it’s not actually a human being you interact with at the end, it’s a quiz via computer.) I memorized all the details of her life, but then at the end, the kinds of questions that were asked didn’t entirely pertain to the cover and they confused me. Oh no! My cover was blown!

Mata Hari letter

Artifacts here include this letter by famed spy Mata Hari.

So I guess I’ll never get a job as a spy now. Actually, that’s okay. Truth be told, I’d never be able to handle the stress involved, and I’m a terrible liar. (I could totally be an analyst though.)

While the International Spy Museum won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (a friend of mine told me she wasn’t a fan), I think a lot of people might enjoy it. It has all the cool gadgets that geeks would love, a section for James Bond fans, real-life historical spy stories for the more serious-minded, and lots of neat information for those of us who have always been fascinated by the life of spies.

Admisson is $21.95, so it’s not a cheap outing, but it’s one of the few museums in the city you need to pay for, so there’s that.

Larry August 24, 2015 at 11:56 pm

Sounds like the place might be worth the admission … thanks for the tour!

Gray Cargill August 25, 2015 at 8:52 pm

Depends on your tastes, Larry, but I liked it a lot.

Bess June 12, 2015 at 12:07 pm

This sounds amazing! I’ve never been to DC, but if/when I go, I’m definitely going to check out this museum. (Also, the James Bond walking tour of London sounds pretty cool, too.)

Gray Cargill June 12, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Bess – DC, it turns out, is a great travel destination. I’m not sure why I put it off for so many years. I won’t make that mistake again. I hope you get a chance to visit it.

Sharon Lawrence June 11, 2015 at 1:08 pm

We went here a few years ago with our 14 and 16 year old granddaughters. We went for them, but found they were ready to leave before we were. It is a fascinating exhibit.

The other DC museum with a fee ($22.95) that is WELL worth the price is the Newseum. It is only a block off the Mall. The ticket is good for two consecutive days. We were just there last week and despite being there twice, we still had things we would have liked to see. The hour long docent led tour is well worth it, as it takes you quickly through all the exhibits and you can then decide which ones you want to do in depth.

The Newseum has the largest section of the Berlin Wall, outside Germany. They currently have an excellent exhibit on Viet Nam, which details how public opinion changed over the course of the war. Since my husband was in the military during Viet Nam, this was a MUST see exhibit for us.

If you buy the tickets a day prior on line you get a 10% discount. No need for a printer, you just give the Newseum staff your order number.

Gray Cargill June 12, 2015 at 8:56 pm

Yes, Sharon, I have to say that the Newseum was one of my top favorite museums in the city. (Review here: I would have enjoyed it even more if there hadn’t been a rowdy school group there when I was. But in any case, it’s the kind of place you can go back to again and again.

Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren June 10, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I’ve always wanted to go to this museum! My friend and I recently took a James Bond walking tour (that I think I’ll post about tomorrow!) of London that was a lot more fun than I imagined. Very cool way to see the city, especially if you’re a fan of the movies and books. Thanks for sharing. Definitely bookmarking this one!

Happy travels 🙂

Gray Cargill June 12, 2015 at 8:48 pm

Ooh, a James Bond walking tour of London sounds like a ton of fun, Lauren! That’s going on my list. 🙂

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