Road Road Trip Report: The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Monday

The last several days have been spent with my parents and family in the Pennsylvania and Maryland. We also used Maryland as a home base to launch the Bickford invasion on Washington, DC over the Columbus Day Weekend.

I’ve never seen DC looking so beautiful (which, if you’ve actually been to DC, can be a shocker of a statement itself–the area outside the government buildings is infamous). But for us, it was nothing but blue skies, perfect weather and–gasp!–free street parking within blocks of the Smithsonian!

We hit the major monuments the first day, including the new World War II memorial (grand and worthy, but a bit of a hodgepodge), and the National Gallery and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum the second (awe-inspiring!). We also got a chance to check out a new addition to the Washington scene: the International Spy Museum.

I’ll admit up front, I was a bit dubious about this one. Admission was $18 for adults and $13 for Neil (Kelly got in free), and there was a separate, similar admission if you wanted to take part in “Operation: Spy”, a sort of in-person spy thriller game (LARP for my geek friends). Moreover, I’d seen a news piece on the place right when it opened, and it seemed to threaten to be just another “look at the cool spy gadgets” museum in a somewhat sterile environment. Nevertheless, Carolyn and Neil really wanted to go, so I caved. I’m glad I did.

In a perfect mix of museum and entertainment, the Spy Museum begins with you entering what looks like a secret, high-security elevator which transports you (amidst appropriate sound effects and lights) to the third floor. There, you’re given a briefing on covers and legends, and encouraged to select one from their dossiers to use throughout your tour of the museum. At various points, you’re quizzed at interrogation computers, and if you pass, are given a spy assignment of your own which you also must memorize.

It’s a shame that photography is prohibited, since the interior of the museum is a real delight, with lifelike displays and rooms depicting everything from Berlin tunnel spying to the rise of the KGB, as well as special displays focusing on spies in everything from the Civil War to movies (and in Hollywood itself–who knew Marlena Dietrich worked for the O.S.S.?). You can even crawl through ductwork at one point and listed to electronic eavesdropping! Videos and computer screens positioned all throughout the museum alternately instructed and quizzed the wannabe intelligence agents on various elements of spycraft, and the whole thing was a total blast.  If I lived anywhere near DC, I might even consider getting the family membership (and now that I’ve gone, I’ll admit I’m curious as heck about Operation: Spy).

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