By Mark Bradley
Washington DC—”We’ve lost him! Where’s my son?” cried my sister, frantically searching the crowded room of youthful, potential spies. “He was here just a minute ago and now he’s vanished.”
Just above her, in the ductwork, 13-year-old Robbie Smith crawled along observing his mother in her panicked state and then quietly exited through a secret door to sneak up behind her.
“Hi mom,” squealed Robbie, surprising her.
“You scared me half to death. Where were you? You just disappeared!” she chided.
“I know mom. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?” Robbie smiled.
Such disappearances are common upon entering the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., near the corner of F and 9th Streets.
The Smith family of Annandale, Virginia is no different than any of the nearly 3 million visitors who have entered this unique museum of espionage artifacts and interactive displays since it opened in July 2002.
As Washington, D.C. is home to more spies than any other city in the word, it is the ideal location for an international spy museum, and founder Milton Maltz has added a much-needed family attraction to the regular sightseeing trips of our nation’s capital
With the success of the Spy Kids movies, it seems everyone under the age of 18 wants to become a spy, and the International Spy Museum is the perfect place to begin.
Even as you wait in line for your “briefing” orientation, there is an air of secrecy around you as you receive your introduction to espionage.
A wall of TV monitors featuring former spies giving testimonials about their shadowy pasts puts you in the mood to learn their secrets.
Sobering statistics such as 67% of Americans believe files are being kept on them for “unknown reasons” are revealed.
A larger than life statue of Lenin’s chief of secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who terrorized Russia during the “Red Terror,” peers down at you sending chills down your spine as your group enters an elevator.
You are then whisked away to the third floor and invited to select a cover identity and story from a room full of kiosks featuring fictional characters. Logos of various countries secret intelligence organizations along with passports and spy ID’s immerse you further into the spy world.
I chose to take on the identity of 48-year-old Russian fisherman, Dmitri Ivanov, who most closely fit my age, while my 16-year-old niece, Jackie, took on that of an innocent looking European teenage girl.
After each of us had committed our cover identity to memory, we were ushered into a School for Spies where we were immediately put to the test by an interactive border guard who asked us pointed questions about our reasons for entering the country, our age, city of birth, etc. Any hesitation or incorrect answer to his questions triggered the “suspicion meter” in his eyes which eventually tells you how you rate as a spy.
Jackie and Robbie passed without suspicion—unlike myself and my sister—and they immediately began honing their tradecraft skills among the over 200 spy gadgets, weapons, bugs, cameras, vehicles, and technologies.
The School for Spies offers fun, interactive games such as “Threat Analysis” which challenges spy candidates to point out the suspicious looking elements in an innocent looking scene. Then it was time to put on the headphones at the Bug Listening Post to monitor the sounds coming from secret listening devices; view the training film on Locks & Picks; and examine the wristband and Ninja cameras.
It’s easy to spend hours here fine tuning your spy skills but there’s so much more to see and learn for children and adults alike.
The Secret History of History section of the museum is next and traces the art of spying back to biblical times and “uncovers the hidden hands” that helped shape world events. Spymasters from Moses to Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth I to George Washington, and Cardinal Richelieu to Joseph Stalin are featured here with explanations on how spies helped them gather invaluable information on their enemies.
The story of the Trojan horse highlights the Earliest Espionage section along with the story of how Moses sent spies to Canaan. You’ll also find the secrets of the ancient Japanese Ninja whose very name strikes fear into hearts of their enemies. Ninja is derived from the Japanese word “ninjitsu” meaning the “art of the shadow.” These legendary warriors represent the consummate spy to many because of their combination of stealth and martial art skills.
Around the corner is the story of American Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale who paid the ultimate price for being caught by the British but who proudly proclaimed before being hung, “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.”
There is an impressive library and early photography exhibit along with the Sisterhood of Spies which features famous female spies throughout history.
Nearby in the Pigeon Room is the story of the “Fly Spy.” This camera carrying pigeon became a decorated hero for flying behind enemy lines during World War II for the Allies to capture photos of military installations.
Be sure to not to miss the “Doorway to Hell” on your way out. This was the name given to the hidden stairway behind the office cabinet of KGB spymaster Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who sent political prisoners down it to the deep, dark horrors of Butyrka Prison in Moscow.
You can rest at the adjacent Cloak and Dagger Theater where a series of old spy movies play continuously before attempting to crack the code of the Enigma machine which the Germans thought to be unbreakable during WWII. Don’t worry, the Allied cryptologists managed to break the code and supply valuable data which shortened the war.
You’ll learn about the disinformation campaigns leading up to D-Day in Europe and the secrets of “The Bomb” along with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. There is also an interesting section on Celebrity Spies who passed crucial information behind enemy lines.
Be prepared to enter the Cold War era as you descend the stairs or take the elevator down to the first floor and step into divided Berlin where you can walk through a replica of the Berlin Tunnel. You’ll pass the famous Checkpoint Charlie and see the Silent Sentries before enjoying the lighter side with Spy Games and clips from TV spy shows like I Spy and the hilarious spy spoof Get Smart.
Finally, you’re confronted with the prospects of the 21st century at the Ground Truth Theater and reminded that spying still plays an important role in world history as you chart current events before relinquishing your spy identity and exiting through the gift shop to the real world.
The museum also offers casual dining at the Spy City Café. Or, more upscale fare is available at the at the very popular innovative American cuisine restaurant Zola adjacent to the museum.
Tickets are limited and advance tickets are recommended, especially for weekend and holiday visits. You can purchase advance tickets through Ticketmaster, or at the museum’s ticket office located inside the group arrivals entrance on 9th St.
General admission is $15 for adults; $14 for seniors and military intelligence; $12 for children 5–11; and children under 5 are free.
All admission tickets for the International Spy Museum are date and time specific and are subject to availability. Same day or Advance tickets are available for purchase in-person at the International Spy Museum. Advance tickets are also available through Ticketmaster at all Ticketmaster locations, via phone at 800.551.SEAT, and online at ticketmaster.com
The International Spy Museum opens daily at 10am and is only closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Hours are subject to change; for the most up-to-date information call 202.EYE.SPYU or visit spymuseum.org
For more information call (202) 393-7798 or 1.866.SPYMUSEUM. Their website is www.spymuseum.org.
I recommend you allow at least four hours for your visit and no photos are allowed inside the museum (unless, of course, you are already outfitted as a spy).
History books record people and events and they tell us what happened, but to understand the how and why you must “peek behind the curtain.” After your visit you’ll know the secret history that helped shape world events when you visit the International Spy Museum.
Editor’s note: There is very limited street parking with vigilant meter maids hovering nearby with their ticket pads waiting. Gallery Place—China Town metro stop is one short block away.