As a young 20-something with a tight budget, I’m lucky that the vast majority of D.C.’s museums are free. When places like the Spy Museum in D.C.’s Penn Quarter ask visitors to pay $20 or more for a ticket, I roll my eyes and walk away. Why waste perfectly good Metro fare to see an obscure, busted collection of button cameras and decoder rings when I can see folk art and presidential portraits for free at the American Art Museum across the street? It wasn’t until my best friend, Elizabeth, came down from Pennsylvania to visit did going to the Spy Museum even cross my mind. “They have an exhibit on James Bond villains and this thing where you can pretend you’re a spy!” she exclaimed over the phone. “We have to go!”
Two days later I found myself outside the museum, grinning at Elizabeth as she peered at the screen on our handheld GPS. We’d just handed over $40 for a combination package that included general admission plus two interactive experiences, Spy in the City and Operation Spy, and were already well into Spy in the City. The device buzzed and a new message from our fictional central command appeared. It was a code and we needed to use the First Amendment inscribed on the face of the Newseum to crack it. This was the essence of Spy in the City: to use monuments, landmarks and various signs around town to solve secret messages and defuse the bomb that an imaginary terrorist organization had planted somewhere in the city. We were on a walking tour of the area, but instead of a droning guide, we had intelligence officers and terrorist turncoats leading us through downtown. In any other city, this would have been corny or out of place, but the Spy Museum sits in the shadow of Capitol Hill and is only a few blocks away from the FBI home office. While we pretended to be spies any one of the tourists or homeless people we passed could have actually been spies! The thought gave me a thrill as I eyed a mother waiting in line outside Ford’s Theatre, wondering if her sunglasses had a hidden camera in the frames.
After saving the city we went inside the museum and crossed into the fictional country of Khandar for the museum’s second interactive experience, Operation Spy. Whereas Spy in the City was a guided tour with a twist, Operation Spy actually simulated an espionage mission. Over the next hour we had to work with a team of fellow agents to decrypt secret messages, spy on covert meetings with hidden cameras, rifle through an ambassador’s office for important documents and interrogate a suspect. Of the two, I preferred Spy in the City since the surroundings were more familiar and I could deal with the game’s challenges at my own pace. However, if you’re looking for a fully immersive experience where you can play with lie detectors and hidden cameras, Operation Spy is the better choice.
Elizabeth and I then went to explore the museum’s exhibits. Scores of postcards with messages written in invisible ink, objects with hidden compartments and other equipment a spy might use lined the walls. Screens were placed throughout the exhibit where visitors could listen to stories from real CIA and FBI agents as they discussed the methods they used on their missions, including one case where they had to find and arrest a fellow agent who was selling American secrets to the Russians during the Cold War. I was entranced and didn’t want to leave. For years I’d avoided this museum because I thought it was too expensive and now that I was there I wanted to study everything they had on hand.
Yes, the various Smithsonian museums around town are engaging and entertaining but few are able to touch on the nation’s collective imagination the way the Spy Museum has. Like pirates or ninjas, people know spies exist but fictions that involve espionage have become so wild they border on fantasy. Going to the Spy Museum is like suddenly discovering Santa Claus is as real and magical as he was when you were a kid and he’s personally giving you a new laptop this Christmas. It’s not something I can afford to do very often, but I would love to go back to the museum with anyone who cared to join me, be they local or from out of town. I’ll just have to walk home for a few nights before I have enough money to do so again.