Continuing my adventures in D.C., I went to the International Spy Museum. I had very low expectations. Like the wax museum, I thought it would be this very cheesy thing primarily directed towards children. When I saw that their special exhibit was 50 years of Bond villains, my hopes were not exactly raised.
It did not start out well. There had some kind of scavenger hunt game that they handed out to the children, so they were running around trying to find all of the items. It starts off where you’re supposed to memorize your cover identity so that you can pass through customs.
Luckily, that kind of stuff immediately faded away and it then became much more of a traditional museum.
They did have some interesting spy relics. They had a bunch of miniature cameras that could be concealed. There was a camera that was disguised as a cigarette case. There was a camera that was disguised as a suit button. There was even a camera that was disguised as a camera case.
Similarly, they had interesting concealed weapons. There was a weapon in an umbrella. There was a gun disguised as a cigarette case (again! spies must really do smoke a lot). There was a collar that was actually a knife. Note that these aren’t toys. These are actually real items that were donated to the museum that were at least theoretically for field use.
There were other items as well of interest. There was a tool kit that could be collapsed into a tube, which was then inserted into your rectum. There was a pair of glasses that had a cyanide pill embedded in one of its arms. As you were interrogated, you could remove your glasses and innocently chew on your glasses as if you were thinking and give yourself a fatal dose.
They also had a special section on Bletchley Park, which included an actual enigma machine.
As I’ve discovered in my tour of the museums, the things that mean the most to me are the objects that have a personal touch to them.
For example, the biggest mole in CIA history is Aldrich Ames. His story is somewhat absurd. A known alcoholic who suddenly can buy houses with cash, drive Jaguars, and wear tailored suits was still able to spy for years. Whenever he had information that he wanted to pass on to his Soviet handler, he’d mark a post office mailbox with a piece of chalk. Well, that mailbox is at the museum.
They have a letter written and signed by Mata Hari.
They have a letter signed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. That name might not mean much to you, but he was the person that formed the Cheka special police force. This was the original Soviet secret police that led to the NKVD, which led to the KGB, which in turn led to the current FSB. When you think of the diabolical reputation of the Soviet/Russian secret police, a big debt of thanks can be laid at his doorstep.
Finally, the coolest thing of all. I’ve written about him several times before. He is almost without question the greatest / most famous double agent of the twentieth century. Of course I’m talking about Kim Philby. I’ve nominated him for person of the century (you can read about my reasons here). The museum has Philby’s hat, shaving kit, pipe, and flask. Considering the fact that, like apparently most spies, Philby was a raging alcoholic, I’m guessing that the flask got a good workout.
The Philby paraphernalia alone was worth the price of admission (and yes, it’s not a Smithsonian, so there is a price to be paid).