Reconnaissance Mission

We go undercover to see if the new International Spy Museum in Washington is keeping secrets, but they seem to be out in the open

July 22, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

WASHINGTON -- A confession: I am a stone museum junkie. And the more offbeat the museum, the better. This may explain recent visits to museums celebrating farm equipment, military ordnance, beer, the Salem witch trials and circus freaks, where I came face to face with Rat Boy, a pathetic wax figure behind smeared Plexiglas whose little rat nose and rat whiskers appeared drawn in black Magic Marker.

So there was no question I'd be attending the grand opening this past weekend of the International Spy Museum, located on F Street Northwest, just a few blocks from the Mall and several light-years in attitude from the stodgy Smithsonian museums.

You sort of got the idea this was not your typical museum opening when aerialists wearing black shades, trench coats and fedoras rappelled down the front of the building and executed a series of languid midair dance moves, all to the theme of the old Mission: Impossible TV series.

This was followed by speeches from Mayor Anthony Williams, Spy Museum founder Milton Maltz and assorted other big-shots, which the crowd somehow endured patiently in the stifling heat and humidity.

Then, with the official opening of the doors, the surge began toward the air-conditioned confines of the museum, a surge that had a rather frantic, Fall-of-Saigon feel to it, minus the overloaded choppers lifting off.

The $40 million facility, which bills itself as "the first public museum in the world dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage," has all the interactive gadgetry and hands-on exhibits we've come to expect from modern museums.

Sure, sometimes all the breathless "You are there!" stuff can be a bit much.

At one of the first exhibits, Covers & Legends, visitors adopt a "cover identity," which requires memorizing specific details of one's new "secret" identity, including age, occupation, place of birth, etc.

The kids may love this -- I found it a whole lot of work, like filling out an MVA form when you've lost your license. And sure enough, at an interactive exhibit where you test your "cover" on a suspicious border guard, I failed miserably. If I were really a spy, I would have been shot on the spot.

But all in all, the museum is interesting and well laid out, and stocked with many of the tools and gizmos spies have used for decades, including an umbrella used by the KGB that fired poison-filled pellets, lipstick guns, necktie cameras, a radio transmitter hidden in a shoe and something called, ahem, a rectal tool kit. ("Filled with escape tools, this kit could be stashed inside the body, where it would not be found during a cavity search.")

Of course, no matter how riveting the actual world of espionage is, Hollywood can always go it one better.

Therefore, one of the top attractions at the Spy Museum will surely be a replica of the famous Aston Martin DB5 that first appeared in the James Bond movie Goldfinger in 1964.

Fans of the dashing Agent 007 may remember this "ultimate spy car" featured machine guns, tire-slashing hub caps, oil jets, a dashboard radar screen, rotating license plates and an ejection seat.

Which sort of makes that necktie camera seem about as cutting-edge as a doily.

One problem I had with the exhibits -- although this may have more to do with creeping old fogey-ism than anything else -- is all the flashing lights and sound effects one encounters.

It's more than a little disconcerting.

One minute you're reading about the Chinese general Sun Tzu -- his Art of War from around 400 B.C. was one of the earliest manuals dealing with warfare and espionage.

And the next minute you hear a techno beat and feel like ordering a Corona and busting a few moves on the dance floor.

Nevertheless, in a quiet exhibit called Bird Spies, I came across one of the more fascinating war stories I'd ever heard, the story of Cher Ami, the homing pigeon.

Cher Ami flew for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. On his last mission, flying with a mangled leg, he flew with a canister that contained a "desperate communication" from a battalion of soldiers separated from the rest of the army and facing starvation and annihilation from German machine gun emplacements and sniper fire.

Anyway, the plucky Cher Ami flew 25 miles in 25 minutes with the message to save 194 lives. And when he finally died of his injuries in 1919, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for his heroic service.

I know, I know ... those crazy French. And here I can't get my dog to go for a walk if it's longer than two blocks.

Every facet of spying seems to be covered. There is an exhibit called Literary Spies that celebrates the likes of Ian Fleming and W. Somerset Maugham and one called Sisterhood of Spies, which details the exploits of women such as Mata Hari, the former exotic dancer who supposedly used her charms to coax diplomats and military officers into giving up their secrets.

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