International Spy Museum
A lipstick pistol, a button-hole camera, a lethal umbrella and an authentic waterboarding table: the espionage world’s heroic, ingenious and sordid sides are all on show in Washington’s all-new, much-expanded International Spy Museum.
The hugely popular showplace that once conjured James Bond and Austin Powers as much as it did actual life-and-death Cold War intrigue has grown and, in the tailwind of 9/11 and the War on Terror, grown up.
In pic – An umbrella similar to the one the KGB used to kill dissident Georgi Markov is seen in an exhibit at the new International Spy Museum during a media preview ahead of its opening in Washington, DC
Could I be an intelligence agent?
Relocated in a gleaming new steel and glass building double the size of its former premises, the Spy Museum still amazes and charms with the tales and gadgets of the undercover world going back centuries.
But now it also depicts the complex and often unsettling challenges of the world of shadows, with visitors asked in clever interactive games and simulated situation rooms to decide: could I be an intelligence agent?
In pic – Visitors tour the new International Spy Museum during a media preview
Most popular US destination
The Spy Museum has been one of the US capital’s most popular private destinations since it opened in 2002.
The new premises opens officially on Sunday, just ahead of the summer tourist season. On show, as before, is the iconic Aston Martin DB5 from 1964’s James Bond thriller “Goldfinger.” But now there is also room for an equally sleek 1980s Amber surveillance drone, the precursor of the Predator.
There is a British World War II one-man submarine, and an actual section of the CIA/MI6 tunnel that penetrated East Berlin in the 1950s to tap Soviet communications. And there are gadgets galore: a pregnant woman disguise from the CIA and a suicide needle hidden in a silver dollar coin, for use by Francis Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot shot down by the Soviet Union in 1960.
There are historical encryption machines, including Germany’s Enigma, and a display on the microdot technology central to spying for decades last century.
In pic – Russian spies caught by the US in 2010 are seen in the new International Spy Museum during a media preview ahead of its opening
Objectives of spies still unchanged
Among all manner of odd items throughout the museum are a saboteur’s exploding lump of coal, pills that CIA operatives entering Cuba could use to sedate barking dogs and the sketchbook of a KGB agent operating undercover in New York in the 1950s.
“The objectives of spies have not changed over the centuries,” said Craig Melton, whose massive collection of espionage gear is the core of the museum.
“The only thing that has changed is the technology, and how they accomplish the objectives.”
In pic – Examples of bugged devices are seen in an exhibit in the new International Spy Museum
The museum’s coverage is global, and mostly without judgement.
China’s theft of US secrets and technology is on display; so is the theft, centuries ago, of China’s silkworm and tea cultivation know-how by Westerners.
Woven in between are engaging, well-designed interactive exhibits and challenges that press the question: what would the visitor do?
One tests a person’s lock-picking ability, while another takes visitors through a series of tests of memory, judgment and observation in a simulated spy operation.
Coming from the Founder
The museum has its roots in the 7,000-piece collection of Melton, a navy veteran and engineer who, beginning in the 1960s traveled the world to amass.
He advertised that he was a buyer of any spy technology, and he sought out and befriended agents and officials from all sides of the Cold War game.
Weeks after the Soviet Union crumbled in December 1991, he traveled to Moscow. “I went and knocked on the door of KGB headquarters and said I’m here to buy spy equipment,” Melton said.
While he raised some suspicions, many realized he was a genuine collector who didn’t talk about politics.
The pride of his collection is gruesome, but he spent four decades seeking it: the ice axe that Joseph Stalin’s assassins used to murder Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, in the climax of an intense three-year intelligence operation.
Melton is hugely proud of the new museum, but somewhat wistful about the new digital age, in which computer technology has replaced many espionage tools.