Most of my crime thrillers contain a healthy dose of espionage because it is one of my favorite subjects. When I graduated law school, I seriously considered joining the State Department, the FBI and the CIA for the chance to be a part of that world. After I decided not to pursue those careers, it still fascinated me from both a real world and a fictional perspective. The interest I have in intelligence made me eager to visit the International Spy Museum in Washington DC for several years. I finally had a chance to go a few weeks ago. While I was a little apprehensive in the beginning of the tour, I can confirm that it is a great place for anyone who is interested in any type of spying.
When we first walked in, I thought the trip would be a complete waste of time. The elevator lit up like something out of an episode of Get Smart. The first display consisted of artifacts connected to the new Argo movie and lists of “cover identities” that you were supposed to choose and memorize. The worst part was that small children outnumbered adults by about 2 to 1. It all seemed quite simplistic to me and not at all what I was looking for.
The next room is a small theater. We sat there and watched a short film narrated by Dame Judi Dentch (for obvious reasons) about the personal motivations of spying. They didn’t specifically refer to the MICE acronym, but that was the thrust of the film. When that was over, I felt the presentation had more substance and I started to relax a bit.
The main exhibit is broken into two parts. The first part looks at various aspects of collecting intelligence. HUMINT, SIGINT and flaps and seals are all covered with an emphasis on the Cold War. The second part of the exhibit looks at the worldwide historical impact of spying from Sun Tzu to Casanova to Mata Hari to Josephine Baker to the D-Day disinformation campaign. This was easily the most interesting part of the museum and not geared towards children at all.
The last part of the museum we saw was the gift shop which also tried to balance real world espionage with more light hearted items. While the front of the store had silly things like spy t-shirts, key chains and posters, the rear of the store had books on foreign policy, special operations and major intelligence analyses from Napoleon to 9/11. I bought several items there, but if I told you what they were, I’d have to kill you.
The only thing that ISM was missing was an exhibit on intelligence after 9/11. The historical exhibit ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so there was no discussion of intelligence relating to modern terrorism or the rise of corporate intelligence over the past 10 years. Keep in mind that when we went, part of the museum was closed for a new exhibit based on the new Bond film; Skyfall They might have left out modern spying because they were making space for Bond or they have skipped it because they can’t get useful material for an era that is still current. Either way, it is a glaring oversight.
It might start out a little silly, but anyone interested in intelligence or espionage will enjoy the International Spy Museum. It was an inspiration to me and my writing and I think it has something for everyone who wanted to know more about the subject.