The name isn’t changing, but when International Spy Museum opens in its shiny new home in May, it’s going to be about a lot more than just spies.
The museum, armed with a 140,000-square-foot new building at 700 L’Enfant Plaza SW, more than 5,000 new artifacts and a whole lot of tech, now aims to be about the full field of intelligence — not just human intelligence, or spying.
Much of what was covered in the previous version of the museum on F Street NW is now squeezed into one gallery: the tools of the trade like shoe cameras and hidden weapons, the stories of real spies from history.
In the rest, the museum attempts to tackle the other ways the modern intelligence community gathers information: using science and technology, through data mining analysis. In a way, the museum celebrates employees at agencies that form an alphabet soup of acronyms: NSA, CIA, NGA and many more.
If you’re worried it will be dry, you’re not alone. The museum has put a lot of effort into making some of the wonkier aspects of intelligence engaging.
“We have an exhibit devoted to analysis. Everyone thought that it’s too boring, but we think we figured out a way to do it,” said Dr. Vince Houghton, the museum’s historian and curator.
The exhibits feature video interviews with many individuals still working in intelligence, some talking about events that used intelligence as recent as the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, or the failure of intelligence to prevent 9/11.
Spy’s $162 million new home doesn’t shy away from the negative or controversial side of intelligence work, in exhibits that address torture, or notable traitors from around the world, for example.
Because many exhibits feature games or video elements on screens, the museum will also be able to keep up with the times, said Houghton, who pointed out the cybersecurity exhibit in the old museum was woefully out of date by the time the museum closed. Software-based games can be updated or replaced.
If visitors choose, they can receive their “cover” for interactives as they walk through the museum, and they will have an radio-frequency identification bracelet attached with their covert identity. The interactive elements will respond to the individuals, and know it’s them when they approach.
“Because digital technology is so much cheaper now, we can put a lot more into the museum and not spend $1 billion,” said Houghton.
That said, there’s still a ton of actual stuff in the museum, thanks to the donation of 5,000 spy and intelligence-related artifacts by collector Keith Melton. Things like the actual pickax used to kill Leon Trotsky, and an actual suit of ninja armor from the Edo period in Japan go hand in hand with the digital in order to appeal to people of varying ages and interests.
While the new museum will focus much less on fictional spies, the James Bond car remains, now stationed in the museum’s lobby.
While all the details are yet to be worked out, the price is expected to increase slightly, by approximately $2 per person, and there may be a timed ticketing system to manage crowds. Tickets to the old museum ran between $14 and $20.
Spy will begin selling tickets for the opening, on May 12, in the coming weeks, and will also be rolling out an online trivia game that will give people a chance to win tickets to its opening gala, to be held May 11.
This article appeared in the Washington Business Journal on March 29, 2019. Article by Rebecca Cooper.