but after touring the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., I think fiction writers would make excellent spies – or at least the people who think up the cool gadgets and plot lines.
We have just returned from our trip and I must say the admission price (a little over US$22 when purchased online) was well worth it. The museum had much more than I anticipated, plus, and I think this is unfortunately a temporary exhibit, an entire section dedicated to the 50 years of James Bond. There was a section on the Bond villains, another with displays of props such as the golden gun, photos and posters galore, plus my favorite – the blue Aston Martin DB5, complete with tire shredding hubcap extension. For those who remember Jaws (the bad guy, not the fish) you will see his teeth on display.
A kid in a James Bond candy store was I.
Back to the museum highlights. At first, you think you are entering just another cheesy tourist trap, complete with the obligatory ticket desk and faux velvet ropes used to cordon off lanes for the masses to queue up and spend money. Once you get past this area, though, the coolness begins.
The elevator bypasses the second floor and goes directly to the third floor. The short ride is an experience. Very unexpected. Listen to the voice; it will be giving you clues on what to do next. The blue lights in the floor give just the right amount of ambiance.
Now you are on the main exhibit floor and you immediately come across a gentleman who will offer to take your “Spy Photo.” You stand in front of a green screen and he takes a photo of whatever pose you choose and then hands you a card to present at the end of your visit. Here’s the deal: you can take the photo or not, you can redeem your card or not. If you do, you will get your picture imposed onto the James Bond opening graphic – you know, the one where you are viewed through the gun barrel, about to be shot? Yep. That one. It’s pretty cool, but I’m a James Bond nut. Take that for what it’s worth. It comes in a nice little display folder, with another shot of the Aston Martin. For $20, you get a single 5×7 inch photo, for a few dollars more you can also receive a 4×5 and two 3×4 photos. Is it worth it? That’s up to you. I thought so, but again, kid in candy store…
Now on to the main exhibits. Many are actual artifacts, some reproductions. You will go venture through 20,000 square feet of spy-craft history, learn about actual (historical) operations, and probably learn a bit about American history, albeit the shadier side. Of course, there are some interactive displays as well. All in all it is a lot of fun for adults and kids, too.
My hint: When you leave the elevator you will be given a chance to assume a false identity. There will be a variety of names you can choose from, each with a backstory. If you want to play along – memorize the backstory. You will need it later. I tried it, but failed miserably. The guards were “very suspicious” and would be “watching me very carefully.”
Of course, it’s a spy museum so you will learn that “everything is not always as it seems.” In other words, there are hidden cameras and microphones everywhere. And if you look hard enough, you will find mini command centers where you can spy on the other visitors. I came across two such areas. One was easy enough to wander through, the other involved crawling through the air duct in the ceiling. I opted out of that little adventure. Maybe in my younger days, but not now. No need to require the rescue crew to pull an old guy out of the ceiling.
The Museum also has “Operation Spy” on the second floor; an activity where you can test your spy skills in an hour long “mission.” We opted out due to time. Something I will look into the next time we visit will be the “Spy in the City” activity where you will tour around DC, armed with a GPS receiver that will show video clues, codes and “audio intercepts” leading you on an outdoor adventure. This is more my speed, as long as the codes lead us to Starbucks.
If you decide to visit, and you spy buffs should, be sure to go to the website. The Museum has an ongoing variety of programs throughout the year. Plan ahead and make the most of your visit!
Overall, I was impressed with the sheer variety of stuff, the historical research that had been done, and the largeness of the museum. I came away with a few ideas to incorporate into future novels, particularly the code techniques. The Spy Museum was really just a culmination of the efforts of very creative people who were bent on trickery and deception – all done in the name of flag and country, of course.
Which brings me to the question: could fiction writers make good spies? Or…have we already?
Author DJ Lutz on a research trip at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.