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By Chris McBeath
For Travel Writers' Tales

Exterior of Museum

We were given two minutes to accept our mission before the room darkened and shielded us from the evidence. Just two minutes to assume our legend-our cover-which was to be our only protection over the next three hours as we lied, side-stepped and tried to stay alive in the cold, unforgiving world of espionage. It's a world few of us ever realize up close, but at Washington DC's International Spy Museum, it's one which is as captivating as it is imaginative, from the moment you step out of the 'briefing' room. Assuming, of course, that you've accepted your mission.

Put together by a crack team of spy experts, the museum not only explores the history, practice and craftsmanship of espionage, it is an open invitation to become a legend in your own lifetime. If only for an afternoon, it lets you join the ranks of celebrated spies such as John Ford, Sterling Hayden, Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker and yes, even culinary queen, Julia Child.

Pigeon Aerial Surveillance camera

An orientation video whets your appetite, and outlines the motivations, tools and techniques of real-life spies. Thus primed, you enter a room called Covers and Legends where you choose a cover identity and two minutes to memorize specific details including your occupation, the reason for your travel, and your birthday. From here, you move through a 'check-point' into a room filled with interactive games that test your ability to maintain your new 'self'. In other words, a real spy game and you're it!

Lipstick Guns

Thru-Wall Camera

But a spy without gadgets would surely be no match for 007. As you move through a series of rooms, you'll discover the world's largest permanent collection of international spy-related artifacts as well as those of the wannabe variety. Check out James Bond's silver Aston Martin DB5 with all the bells and whistles as well as real-life tools-of-the-trade such as the 'ultimate kiss of death': a lipstick pistol from the 60s developed by the KGB as a 4.5mm single shot weapon; hollow coins and shaving cans used to conceal items; a shoe with heel transmitter that could monitor secret conversations; a typewriter that would emit signals of documents as they were typed; and the proverbial trench coat with a camera built into one of the buttons.

Bond Car

The museum quickly seduces you into its world of shadows. Before long you find yourself learning about espionage tactics used by ancient cultures and bygone eras. After all, snooping around other people's business is a time-honoured tradition. There is a replica of the ancient Rosetta Stone which the Egyptians used as a cipher device against invaders; a history of the Japanese spy-assassins, the Ninjas; and a revealing account of Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese military strategist and author of The Art of War, the world's first do-it-yourself war manual written some 2,000 years ago. Sun Tzu was an active proponent of spying and his tactics were later formalized by Sir Francis Walsingham when he created a network of secret servants, intrigues and innovative codes that helped keep Queen Elizabeth I on the throne for 45 years.

Minox Cameras

Most visitors associate the hey-day of spying with the Cold War, an era which the museum has highlighted with propaganda, training films and a convincing replica of the Berlin Wall Tunnel. Many East Germans used this underground railroad to escape to the West-the tunnel even contains a washer and dryer so that people who were digging the tunnel could come out clean so as not to arouse suspicion. At the time, Berlin swarmed with the most spies in the world-over 8,000 of them-so unsurprisingly the East Germans knew of the tunnel from its inception, yet allowed it to continue so as to maintain the cover of some high-placed agents.

Secret Writing Kit

Transmission Kit

Step into the obligatory gift store, and spy-stuff takes on a lighter dimension, offering items such as pens with invisible ink, fingerprint powder as well as logo-embossed t-shirts. Still, you leave the museum wondering. Today, Washington DC has the highest concentration of spies of any city in the world, and since the spy credo is to trust no-one, nothing is as it seems, you have to wonder whether your cabbie is, in fact, living a legend.

NOTE: Today, it is estimated that there are 42 active counter intelligence agencies in the world, spending over US$30 billion per year. That's about $82,191,780 per day.


For information:

PHOTOS: Credits: International Spy Museum

1. Pigeon Aerial Surveillance camera
1a Pigeon Aerial Surveillance camera
2. Bond Car
3. Exterior of Museum
4. Lipstick Gun
4a Lipstick Gun
5. Minox cameras
6. Secret Writing Kit
7. Transmission Kit
8. Thru-wall camera

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