Across the street from the Old Patent Building in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood sits a building that looks rather unassuming. Don’t let the brick façade fool you into thinking that there is just another museum inside. You’d fall prey to a well-crafted cover. This is the International Spy Museum, and you’ve never seen anything like it.
The mission we chose to accept:
- Establish Cover Identities.
- Infiltrate operations at 800 F St NW, Washington, DC, United States – 20004: International Spy Museum.
- Test family travel compatibility.
- Get out alive.
There may have been more to it, but the message self-destructed in two minutes.
When you enter this exhibition of espionage it is rather apparent that you aren’t at the Smithsonian any more. Check your identity at the door and get ready to enter, “Spy School.”
An elevator whisks you into an antechamber where the lights dim and a panoramic screen alights with a history of the importance and impact of spy-craft throughout the ages. As the lights come back up you’re escorted into a room where you’ll choose and memorize your Cover ID, an important step in your mission.
Our kids loved this! Okay, so did I. (could you tell?)
The International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the US solely dedicated to the spy-craft, history, and contemporary role of espionage. Open since July 2002 and in development since 1996, the museum features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display – many have never been seen by the public. (Yes, that lipstick pistol is REAL!) These artifacts – from a 1777 letter by George Washington authorizing a New York spy network (ahem, fans of Turn) to a 1980s coat with a camera concealed in a button – really do serve to “uncover” the real-life impact of espionage.
This really is an immersion experience, how “deep” you go into your cover is up to you.
Once you choose your cover you move on to the next area where a lesson in the tools of the trade awaits. The kids got really into the interactive portion; climbing through air ducts, searching for listening devices, learning the lingo. My husband and I – both big fans of the show “The Assets,” as well as movies like “Argo” – were drawn to the video screens where the actual players in these real-life dramas tell their own stories. The irony of the kids pulling us away from the TV was not lost on me.
Other exhibits we found both intriguing and educational in our journey into the hidden world of intrigue include:
The Secret History of History – This series of galleries chronicles the history of spying from biblical times to the early 20th century. There is even a reconnaissance pigeon display. Leave it to the French to play fowl.
Spies Among Us – These exhibits, films, and videos examine espionage through World War II, showcasing real-life spy stories. I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to this period in history. Sitting in a mock bunker and listening to encoded radio messages sent by the French Resistance and trying decode them was almost like being in a time machine.
Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains – This was my favorite! It takes you from the 60’s and Dr. NO all the way to Skyfall. Ian Flemming’s typewriter, Bond movie posters in nearly every language , and hello… Duran Duran music! More than just geekery for nerds like me, the exhibit shows the evolution of how the pop culture vision of the “Bad Guy,” has been influenced by the changing times, and fears. This area is also the most fun for kiddos. I won’t give anything away but let’s say I got startled by something here and the kids are still laughing at me. When a museum becomes part of family lore, you know it had to be good.
I’ll admit to having been a bit disturbed by the final exhibit, The 21st Century. Until that point most of our visit dealt with the historical past, it felt a bit fantasy – like a place you were just visiting. When you get to this final stop you’re made to really think about here-and-now issues; weapons of mass destruction, cyber warfare. Those hit close to home. Framed against all I’d already seen, I couldn’t help but think, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Luckily the last stop on your visit is the gift shop. Nothing like exercising the credit card to make you forget cyber crime… doh! Actually this is the perfect ending. The shop is packed with books written about and by spies, fun trinkets, toys the kids “had” to have and even some of my favorite British treats. I’d hoped for Sean Connery, but happily settled on taking home some chocolate dipped Digestives biscuits.
International Spy Museum 411
800 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004 – Phone: (202) 654-0950
The museum is partnered with this nifty service called Parking Panda. You can purchase a guaranteed parking space in advance of your visit for as little as $16 depending upon when you go. That is pretty darn cheap for DC! There are several public garages nearby as well as some (very hard to get) metered spots on the street.
Nearest Metro Station:
Gallery Place/Chinatown stop.
Hours of Operation:
Open Daily 10:00 am – 6:00 pm (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas day)
$21.95, Adults (ages 12-64) $14.95, ages 12+
$15.95, Seniors (65+), Military & Law Enforcement
$14.95, Children (ages 7-11)
FREE, Children (ages 6 and under)
$27.95, Operation Spy + General Admission
$27.95, Spy in the City + General Admission
$39.95, Spy in the City + Operation Spy + General Admission
$24.95, Operation Spy + Spy in the City
My International Spy Museum Tips
- Take the Metro!
- Buy your tickets in advance, the lines can get long
- Plan on a minimum of three hours
- Push buttons, turn knobs, look closely there is more to see than you’ll notice at first glance
- If there is a long line for an activity station, come back later. Groups tend to dwindle and if you miss something you’re really missing out
- I highly recommend purchasing the full combo ticket for your first visit
(Lead Photo Courtesy of the International Spy Museum)