Editors' pick

International Spy Museum

History Museum
International Spy Museum  photo
Courtesy of International Spy Museum
This tantalizing destination featuring true-life tales of espionage is a worthy mission, but it does come at a price.
Open daily 10 to 6
Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Green and Yellow lines)
$19.95, $15.95 seniors, $14.95 age 7-17, free for age 6 and younger.

Editorial Review

The International Spy Museum recommends advance passes to avoid waiting in lines and ensure tickets are available for the date and time you wish to visit. Tickets are in highest demand on weekends and holidays, particularly between 10am and 2pm. Tickets are most likely available Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays or daily after 2pm. Advance tickets are available for purchase at the ticket desk inside the museum during visiting hours. Advance tickets are also available through TicketMaster, by phone (800-551-SEAT), online (www.ticketmaster.com) or at TicketMaster outlets. Standard TicketMaster service charges apply. All advance tickets are date and time specific.

Spy Museum Sheds Its Cover
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 19, 2002

There is a room in the International Spy Museum, a unique museum of espionage in downtown Washington, wherein the fates of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as well as some of the other major players in the Soviet effort to steal atomic secrets from the United States, are introduced in a series of back-lit panels accompanied by a solemn voice-over. When the final panel flashes the headline -- "Reds Have Atom Bomb" -- the recording intones the single word: "Outcome?"

This is followed by another man's voice, counting backward from 10 to 1, a countdown that gradually fades out as a second voice continues the countdown in Russian.

The room then lights up with a flash of apocalyptic red as the floor beneath you trembles with an ominous rumble.

If the none-too-subtle point is to scare the bejesus out of you -- or, at least, drive home the importance of safeguarding American military secrets -- it very much hammers it home.

And that's not even the most effective, or chilling, point made by the place, which attempts to offer information on everything and everyone from Francis Gary Powers (the American U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over Soviet territory in 1960 while photographing missile installations) to Austin Powers and from Sun Tzu (author of the 2,400-year-old "The Art of War") to Robert Hanssen. The ultimate head trip may be the eavesdropping station that allows visitors to pick up a pair of headphones and listen to conversations captured by bugs secreted at one of two locations around the museum. Startlingly enough, it's completely legal.

These are only a couple of the things that powerfully pull the rug out from under you as you travel through the museum, one of whose overarching themes seems to be: All is not what it seems. In addition to such examples of subterfuge as fake coal hollowed out to contain explosives and the soon-to-be infamous "rectal tool kit" (a kind of Swiss Army Knife that operatives would stash, as the name implies, where the sun don't shine), visitors are asked to adopt a cover identity upon arriving, with a new name, age, birthplace, etc. As you move through the museum, you are confronted by digital "border guards" at interactive stations who interrogate you to see how much you remember while trying to trip you up.

The museum's strongest points, then, are those made subtly (for instance, that lying for a living isn't as easy as it sounds).

In describing the museum's mission, museum director Peter Earnest breaks it down into five mnemonic categories: enlightenment, engagement, education, entertainment and entrepreneurship (the last coming from the founders' hopes that the institution will one day become self-sustaining). Yet there is one "E" word -- ethics -- that seems conspicuous by its absence here.

While the moral implications of lying, stealing and, in some cases, killing as a career choice form a sort of subtle through-line to the stories that are told here, there is no gallery or display case to specifically address that issue head-on. And while the museum is structured as a collection of thematic narratives, it often feels as though we are being presented with only one side of the story.

Take, as an example, the description of museum board member Jonna Mendez, a former chief of disguise with the CIA, who calls her onetime employer "a remarkable group of people trying to do the right thing." At the risk of sounding treasonous, couldn't that phrase apply equally well to the KGB . . . at least from their point of view?

While the idea that there is a single, valid notion of right and wrong (i.e., ours) might strike some as merely patriotic, it comes across as a bit strange in a museum that purports to be international. So does the museum's dominant focus on the Cold War, to the virtual exclusion of such big-time intelligence rivalries as those between India and Pakistan, or between Israel's shadowy Mossad agency and the Arab world, or between communist China and everyone else.

One agency substantially missing here, at least when compared with the OSS, CIA and the FBI, whose agents figure prominently, is the NSA. Outside of the museum's cryptological galleries, the National Security Agency's employees seem largely invisible. But that's unsurprising, considering that the supersecret institution's initials are often said to stand for No Such Agency.

All in all, though, with an eclectic collection that includes a replica of James Bond's Astin Martin (complete with tire shredder) and the mailbox once used as a signal site at 37th and R streets NW by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, the International Spy Museum intelligently addresses both the very real dangers and the enduring allure -- the sex appeal, if you will -- of spycraft. It does what it intends to do, which is to make you think a little bit, and to make your heart beat a lot faster.