Spy Museum is one of the few museums in Washington D.C. that is not free. The National Geographic Museum is another one that charges, however there is no cost to visit all those who are managed by Smithsonian. In the spring of 2019 this museum moved to a new location in L’Enfant Plaza on the Southwest Waterfront. We walked after visiting the Freer and Sackler Galleries, also known as the National Museum of Asian Art.
The new building is made of glass with red stripes and has the letters “SPY” on its side, as in a sign at the entrance. Building this 140,000 square feet (13,000 square meters) museum cost $162 million.
On the ground floor you will find a huge gift shop that has many books and other artifacts used by spies. There is also the legendary Aston Martin DB5 used by James Bond in the Goldfinger movie.
You must proceed to the ticket office to buy your ticket, if you did not buy it in advance on the website. At a cost of $24.95 (2020) this museum is not cheap, but it is a good way to spend several hours in Washington D.C., especially if it is raining. Opens every day from 9 a.m. at 6 p.m. except on Sundays when it closes at 8 p.m. If you can go early or on weekdays you will enjoy a better experience. When we went it was a little crowded and we didn’t have time to complete our missions.
To tour the Spy Museum and complete your mission you must have between two to three hours available. Although they accept children, it is recommended that they are over 9 years old so that they can understand it. I went with my sister on one of my many visits to Washington D.C.
After we bought the ticket we went up in an elevator to get information about our undercover mission. Each person goes to a screen to complete questions. You are given a character based on your personality. I was the spy dancer Blair Kimura from New York. They also give you a secret code (mine was “yingyang”) that you must memorize in order to complete the experiences in the stations that are throughout the Spy Museum.
At the end you will receive a score that consists of three aspects: acute observation, strong memory and technical knowledge. With your license number you can search your result on the website later or on the screens before leaving. All stations were being used by people and as we were short of time we did not do the tests. So in the end they gave us our result saying that we were very good going unnoticed.
An informative theater introduces you to the world of covered operations and how they can change the world. This video is narrated by the recognizable voice of actor Morgan Freeman.
After the briefing you go to the first exhibition: stealing secrets. It focuses on six spies: Morten Storm, Dmitiri Bystrolyotov, Mata Hari, Sir Francis Walsingham, James Lafayette, Mosab Yousef and Gonen ben Itzhak.
They all lived in different historical periods and places. In addition, everyone used different techniques, including seduction, cunning, deception, trust, risk and loyalty. Each of the exhibits is narrated by the character, who may even be the same person if he is still alive as is the case with Morten Storm.
Another part of this exhibition shows all the tools used by spies. Surely you have seen many in movies, but in the Spy Museum they present a transition in history, from rudimentary things to technology. We had a good time watching all the curiosities. The objects are divided into five key areas: covert communications, surveillance and counter-surveillance, escape and evasion, disguise and secret entry.
An exhibition teaches how to make sense of the secrets that have been obtained. In addition to how codes are created and deciphered which have been developed from the beginning of human history to the most advanced computers. Understanding encrypted messages has changed history, the most famous example was the “Enigma Code” during World War II. Analysis explains how analysts make sense of the information. In the decision room you can participate in exercises used by the CIA in its search for Osama bin Laden.
How do you spy?
Covert Action shows techniques used by governments and leaders to influence events in other countries. Techniques include sabotage, deceit, lethal action, secret soldiers, undermining nations, propaganda and exfiltration. Some modules in the Spy Museum have real spies that tell their stories, including a lady in charge of handling Noriega in Panama during the invasion done by the Americans. Another story tells the friendship created by an Israelite handler with his Palestinian spy. Mosab Hassan Yousef was spying on the terrorist group Hamas. He requested refuge from the United States because his life was at risk and he was rejected. Gonen ben Itzhak, the Israelite, had to face his friend for asylum.
Berlin became a city of spies after World War II. An exhibition has part of a 1,476-foot tunnel that passed under Berlin. This tunnel was used by American and British missions to access between the west and east to get information from the Soviets.
The interrogation room is quite shocking, since it has torture instruments used by spies. There is a water table kit (to try to drown people) and a stress box (a wooden structure that confines a person in a crouched position). The exhibition asks if they work, since people can lie to stop being tortured.
An uncertain world
How espionage changed history? A full exhibit at the Spy Museum answers this question. George Washington, the first president of the United States, created a network of spies to gain intelligence and win the revolution. We all know how both sides spied during World War II. As the years pass, the information is declassified and we learn that well-known characters, such as Julia Childs or Coco Chanel, were spies. With the evolution of technology, now a lot of espionage is cybernetics using hackers.
Not all cases of espionage are positive, so in the Spy Museum there is a room of fateful failures. On the top is a photo of George W. Bush (you can visit his museum in Dallas, Texas) who did not know how to interpret the 9/11 information. Another case for the United States was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Governments are not the only ones spying, as it also happens in the corporate world as a whole. In the 1980s, the government of France put microphones to listen to the conversations of first class passengers on Air Concorde airplanes (you can see a Air France Concorde plane at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.). The CIA and the FBI discovered what was happening and complained to the French.
The DuPont company makes titanium dioxide that is used to paint white oreo filling, toothpaste, paper, paint, among other things. In the 1990s there was a Chinese attempt to steal the secrets of DuPont. The company got the FBI to arrest the perpetrator.
Visiting the new Spy Museum provides several hours of fun entering a world that is mostly seen in movies.