Washington DC’s International Spy Museum: Trust No One… But Have a Great Time

John Campbell, walks into the lobby of the red brick building.  A simple clothing salesman enjoying some down-time prior to a 2 week business trip to Budapest.  His eyes dart left, dart right, he reaches into his pocket, something seems amiss, and he quickly wanders off.  Turns out, John Campbell was no ordinary tourist; it was just a cover for this secret agent – one of many you can meet at Washington DC’s International Spy Museum.  One of the most clever and interactive museums I’ve experienced.  Continue after the break for more glimpses and details inside the intriguing and mysterious house of spies.

International Spy Museum, Washington DC

The museum’s a relative newcomer in a city full of impressive artifact filled halls.  The space opened in 2002, but planning began in 1986 led by a team of leading intelligence experts in the world including: the former Director of Counterintelligence for the National Security Council, a retired Major General of the Soviet KGB, two Chiefs of Disguise for the CIA, the first woman to hold the post of Director General for the British Security Service (MI5), and the list goes on.  These folks know their spycraft.

Entering the lobby of the museum, you walk into a stark, futuristic, otherworld straight out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible film.  You’re quickly told no photography is permitted; you wouldn’t want to compromise your fellow agents (all photos used for this article were provided by the museum).  Then, you’re hustled into an elevator with flashing lights, emotionless computer voices and instructions.  You exit the elevator into the heart of spy central, and adopt your secret spy cover for the day.  John Campbell?  That was my cover, a 34 year old American clothing salesman, born in Mandeville, Jamaica, headed to Budapest, Hungary on a 14 day business trip.  Learn your cover; memorize the details; it could mean the difference between life and death for your career as a covert agent.


School for Spies Exhibit at the International Spy Museum


Once you’ve successfully taken a new identity, it’s time to learn the tricks of the trade in the “School for Spies.”  Interactive panels let you try to find suspicious activity, and test you on various aspects of your cover identity.  Here there are also displays of artifacts illustrating the various technical aspects of spycraft – bugs, disguises, cameras, and weapons can all be found here.


Steineck ABC Wristwatch Camera (c. 1949, Germany)


Lipstick Pistol (c. 1965, USSR, KGB issue)


The museum also mingles pop culture movie props amidst the actual spy gadgets, and talks about how the movies and books influenced the actual espionage agencies.  There are plenty of pieces of James Bond movie memorabilia and collectibles to be found in the spy museum as well as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Get Smart”, “Mission Impossible”, and even a few “Austin Powers” references.  I’m not quite sure what Mattel was thinking when they produced the official Barbie “Bond Girls” from “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger” – Honey Ryder and Pussy Galore, respectively.  Ummmmm, yeah, I don’t think I’ll be buying those anytime soon for my daughters.


Replica James Bond Aston Martin, International Spy Museum, Washington DC


The highlight of the spy movie memorabilia on display is a replica of James Bond’s Aston Martin complete with machine guns, tire slashers, bulletproof shield, oil jets, dashboard radar screen, rotating license plate, and ejector seat.  The depiction of this “Bond car” in the films inspired intelligence agencies around the world to incorporate similar features into high-security vehicles used in the field.


International Spy Museum's School for Spies Exhibit with Replica Bond Car


After wandering through the artifacts and exhibits of the Spy School, it’s time to learn the role spies played over time in “The Secret History of History.”  Visitors are dropped into exhibits and scenes starting with ancient Ninja warriors, to the American Revolution (George Washington, Ben Franklin and Benedict Arnold makes appearances), to the Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and on up to the Cold War – the War of Spies.

Camera attached to Pigeon used for spy photography in World War I, International Spy Museum, Washington DC


A large part of the lower level of the museum places guests in Cold War Berlin, known as the City of Spies.  Cafes, phone booths, cobblestone streets and cars tell the story of how spies keep tabs on their adversaries in the Democratic sector of West Berlin and the Communist held East Berlin.  A full size tunnel recreates an attempt of the West to bypass the Berlin Wall to spy on the East.  Finally, the role of the Berlin Wall itself in this period is explained with a recreation of the structure as well as actual pieces of the toppled Wall that symbolized the end of the Cold War.

City of Spies, Post-War Berlin exhibit in International Spy Museum, Washington DC


The exhibit ends with a look at the challenges spies face in the 21st Century.  “cyber_war” is a sobering display of how computer viruses could topple our digital infrastructure shutting down power to transportation (including air traffic control), the government (including the military), GPS satellites, mobile communication, radio and television, as well as our electrical grid.  It was a powerful display for how the intelligence community needs to continually adapt to ongoing threats.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the International Spy Museum, spent a couple of hours, and could have easily spent half a day checking out all the details in the displays.  I intentionally did not want to see everything, because I wanted to come back with my entire family.  The museum definitely appeals to adults as well as children – although children 10 and older will probably get the most out of the visit.  Ticket prices range from $19.95 for adults (ages 18-64), $14.95 for seniors (ages 65+), and $13.95 for youth (ages 7-17).  Children ages 6 and under are free.  There are discounts available.  In fact, I was able to use a Groupon discounted ticket for only $10.  So keep your eyes open for specials.  Disclosure: everything described in this post was paid for by the author.

So what are your thoughts?  Does the International Spy Museum sound like something your family would enjoy?  Would you plan for a stop on a visit to our Nation’s Capitol?  Have you already visited the museum?  Leave a comment below, and let others know your opinion and experience.  For more travel news and features, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.