This Sunday: Spy Museum’s Grand Opening in L’Enfant Plaza

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The International Spy Museum's bold architecture stands in contrast to some of the brutalist buildings in L'Enfant Plaza. Photo courtesy ISM.

I am Alli, a spy disguised as a journalist from Istanbul on my way to Guatemala City, where I’ll address modern-day terrorist threats.

This is the identity generated for me when I enter the fifth-floor exhibition space of the International Spy Museum. The grand opening of the museum’s new L’Enfant Plaza building will take place on Sunday, May 12.

I am given an undercover agent badge, which the museum will use to track me throughout as I engage in digital simulations. For Alli, such simulations include vetting tweets from potential terrorist suspects based on real intelligence-agency interactions with social media.

Given the museum’s goal of portraying “espionage from a global perspective” and promoting an “unbiased education,” my international identity makes sense. The museum is all-inclusive. Whether it be a Trojan Horse display, a Kennedy versus Khrushchev room or a cyberterrorism exhibit, a range of time periods and continents are represented.

The museum boasts the “largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever displayed.” Some highlights of the collection: Francis Gary Power’s Silver Dollar Suicide Pin, designed for pilots of the CIA U-2 mission in the event they choose death over capture; an authentic KGB coat with a buttonhole camera; and an original KGB lipstick pistol.

With its covered walls of everyday spy gadgets, from camera combs and bugged loafers to survival flasks that hold more than just whiskey, the exhibits transform the viewer into both a sophisticated secret agent and a kid in a candy store. And this speaks to the general atmosphere of the museum — a mix of both fun and frightening. Visitors can choose a digital disguise of purple hair and a mustache or, in the Red Teaming Interactive, enter a simulation of Bin Laden’s compound.

Overall, the new museum — twice the size of the original, located across from the National Portrait Gallery — is a declaration of the unknown history and unsung heroes of global espionage. At the same time, it celebrates the ways we can use our minds and skill sets to save nations.

For the official May 12 opening to the public, the museum will host a family festival that features musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Fellowship Program, makeup artists, food trucks and a magician. In honor of Mother’s Day, mothers who call in advance will receive free admission.

The Spy Museum encourages interactive learning. Photo by Robert Devaney.
The first U.S. president was also a spymaster. Photo by Robert Devaney.
In East and West Berlin, the Cold War was fought at the city streets. Photo by Robert Devaney.
The Spy Museum’s bold architecture stands in contrast to some of the brutalist buildings in L’Enfant Plaza. Photo by Robert Devaney.
Between Kennedy and Khrushchev, information from spies helped to ease the high tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photo by Robert Devaney.
The Spy Museum’s bold architecture stands in contrast to some of the brutalist buildings in L’Enfant Plaza. Photo courtest ISM.
Interactive exhibits are abundant in the Spy Museum. Photo by Katherine Schwartz.
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