I hate L’Enfant Plaza, the soulless complex of office buildings between the National Mall and the southwest waterfront in Washington, D.C. The inanity of its layout is a blemish on the career of I.M. Pei, who oversaw its design. Its layout, along with its uninspiring concrete towers, are everything that went wrong with 20th-century architecture and urban planning while it simultaneously gobbles up one of the most precious real-estate parcels in the world. It is almost as impossible to navigate as Les Halles in Paris, and cuts the heart of the city from its riverfront.
If you want to get a sense of just how remarkable this plot of land is, your best bet is to get invited to a rooftop party at the just-opened location of the International Spy Museum right at 700 L’Enfant Plaza, which has unparalleled views of DC’s skyline in one direction, and of the Potomac River in the other. The glass and steel complex, recently completed for $162 million (the previous iteration was in Chinatown) and opening Sunday May 12, will hopefully begin a transformation of this area, its power as a crowd draw working to bridge disconnected parts of the city.
And make no mistake, it will be a crowd draw.
The museum is, from top to bottom, riveting. It tackles everything from the stories of legendary spies, clever gadgets, intelligence analysis, policy, and controversial topics like torture and internal spying. It engages visitors of all ages and espionage interests. For those just looking for crazy spy stories, there are plenty. For those with a collector’s eye, the museum is host (thanks to Keith Melton, the world’s preeminent spy paraphernalia collector) to everything from original German plans for a supergun to the one-man submarine known as Sleeping Beauty. It also has dozens of interactives for children and for adults looking to test their skills.
While visitors enter on ground level into a lobby decked out with an Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, a drone, and a replica of the Turtle (a submarine created during the Revolutionary War), the museum’s experience kicks off on the fifth floor, where visitors register and create an alias they can use for the interactives throughout the museum. Then, they enter what curators describe as the nuts and bolts of what intelligence agencies (emphasis here on the international in the museum name) actually do.
It begins with the low-hanging fruit via jumbo-sized exhibits on legendary spies like Mata Hari, Francis Wolsingham, James Lafayette, Dmitry Bystrov, and Morten Storm. (The Mata Hari case examines not only her mythical status versus what she actually did, but also features a video of interviews with real-life female spies who talk about what being a female spy is really like.) Wrapping around the room are glass cases examining the gadgets used for human spying—perfect for the Q (of James Bond) fan. Then it continues into a room focused on “technical collection” such as the use in the Civil War of hot air balloons by the Union or the GloMar mission (the U.S. wanted to recover a Russian submarine on the bottom of the sea and used Howard Hughes as cover). In the subsequent room, the attention is on coding and ciphers for collecting and sharing intelligence, with the Enigma Code as the center of the exhibit.
Perhaps the most relevant to today’s intelligence world, and something that speaks to the museum’s mission to be more than sensational stories and cool gadgets, the museum continues with exhibits focused on analysis, which is so much of today’s intelligence apparatus. There are interactive games designed to show you how our biases and instinctual way of approaching problems can be problematic (I was particularly embarrassed by my performance on one), and perhaps most exciting, a chance to do an interactive deep dive into the intelligence and analysis around the Osama bin Laden raid.
The “nuts and bolts” section of the museum is rounded out by one of its sexiest sections—covert ops. There one can find Sleeping Beauty, as well as the ice pick that did in Leon Trotsky. It covers paramilitary action, and offers case studies for when they’ve worked, and when they’ve been a disaster. Propaganda gets a wall, with both the poster by the Soviets claiming AIDS was a Pentagon program and a screenshot of Russian Facebook activity sticking out to me. And of course, in the section on exfiltration, former museum board member (before he did) Tony Mendez of Argo fame is featured.
If the museum just had these, it would still be a worthy addition to D.C.’s world-class museum collection. It would be fun, informative, and relevant. Instead, the museum’s curators wanted to take the museum in a more, in their words, philosophical, direction.
The next level down (which you enter through a wall of quotes including one from Professor Snape) examines why we spy and what the lines around it should be. Clearly there is spy-worship on the museum’s part, and the exhibit opening with George Washington as the original American spymaster makes clear their position (i.e. the U.S. wouldn’t even exist without a focus on espionage), but they do ask hard questions. There is an exhibit on security needs versus transparency, with part of it centering on the Rosenbergs and the other on Edward Snowden. Another examines the costs of intelligence failures through the details of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
But there is still fun to be had, particularly when they highlight people who have sacrificed for their work as spies including Julia Child (they have a copy of her shark repellent recipe she created for OSS) and Mo Berg (professional catcher who nearly assassinated Werner Heisenberg). One of the last installations, Uncertain World, which is about the threat at home, is perhaps the most complex and compelling. It grapples with turncoats like Robert Hanssen, Kim Philby, and Adolf Tolkachev. Spying on one’s own people gets its time in the light, whether it be in the case of East Berlin (they even recreated a hotel room full of bugs and a Stasi interrogation room) or looking at domestic terror threats (an oft-forgotten one the museum brings back are the Palmer raids). A room off of the exhibit is devoted to interrogation and torture, offering up first a history of methods, as well as detailed examples of what has been used. While the video of people debating the merits of certain tactics is interesting, perhaps more compelling is the stress box you can climb inside of, or the waterboarding kit Malcolm Nance donated to the museum.
“We know this is going to provoke strong views,” Alexis Albion, the lead curator who worked on the 9/11 commission told me on a preview of the new digs. And it certainly will. But if we’re being honest, the museum’s success is predicated less on controversy and more on the fact that spies and their sagas are some of the most heavily consumed forms of entertainment (we even have a series devoted to telling them, called Cloak & Dagger). And while I find the ticket price steep ($24.95 General Admission, $14.95 for ages 7-14, 6 and under free), the museum’s clear triumph in telling those tales ensures that many who came for the sexy stories will also be confronted with some of the more difficult conversations.