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The Secret's Out: The New Spy Museum Is a Lot of Fun

July 25, 2002

"I'm going back — it was fun and different from most museums. It engages people and they learn as they go along."

These were some of Steve Shulman's thoughts as he visited the new Spy Museum last week during a special hospitality industry party given last week. As the Executive Director of the American Red Cross Historical Resources Department, he is very interested in seeing what any new museum is doing. The Red Cross hopes to break ground for their museum in Washington, D.C., and they hope to have it open in time for the 125th anniversary of the Red Cross —2006.

"What's interesting to me about the Spy Museum is that it appeals to all ages. There's something for everybody. There's enough substance for a government person to delve into. The younger people will like the gadgets and people who remember Goldfinger and 007 will find that appealing to them."

Susan Palmer, president of Palmer Plus Event Planning, also thinks the museum is good for all ages. "I'm a great mystery buff and I thought it was fascinating," she said. "I think it's great the way they start testing your memory. There's a little bit of make-believe, but a lot of real events too. It's really not that far removed from reality."

She plans to take her 89-year-old father there; he served in Berlin from 1947-51, and she thinks that he will enjoy the displays on the Berlin Tunnel and East Germany.

Charlene Duryea, used to work at Mount Vernon, and is now the Director of Marketing for the Spy Museum. She said, “We expect the International Spy Museum will appeal to local residents, in part, because so much espionage activity goes on in and around the

nation’s capital that most everyone knows someone who currently works or has worked at one of the intelligence agencies. Two of my former staff members at Mount Vernon had a spouse who worked for the CIA, for example. I estimate that 40% of our first year’s visitation would be local visitors — higher than any subsequent year.

“Typically, locals like to check out new museums soon after they open. We want as many locals as possible to see the museum and put us on the “must see” list for visiting family, friends, and colleagues. Also, we’re presenting Washington, D.C. as the espionage capital of the world. I think local residents will find it fascinating to learn stories about their “Spy City” that casts D.C. in a different light.

“I know the team at the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association understands that Alexandria’s visitors typically spend time touring Washington, D.C. If the International Spy Museum succeeds in bringing more people to D.C., it will bring more people to Alexandria too. From this perspective, we’re all part of the tourism marketing effort to promote the region and can all benefit accordingly.”

KING LAUGHLIN, Assistant Director of Development for Mount Vernon Estates, is married to Charlene and has been helping the new museum. He said that he knows many military ex-military personnel in Mount Vernon who are very excited about it. "It relates to their profession and strikes a chord. A lot of people can directly relate to the information on the Cold War. The way the interactive material is combined with the displays makes for a complete package."

Laughlin isn't worried about the new museum taking business away from Mount Vernon. He feels that it complements Mount Vernon, because the Spy Museum places emphasis on George Washington as a spymaster. The museum acquired an original letter written by Washington to Nathaniel Sackett, asking him to do some spy work. Laughlin said that in his opening remarks, founder Milton Maltz said that he felt that this was one of the most important pieces in the museum. "When I held that letter, I felt like I was holding a piece of history."

Duryea agrees and said, “The International Spy Museum and Mount Vernon have George Washington in common. The George Washington original letter at the Spy Museum is the oldest in our collection and the topic of George Washington as a “SpyMaster” has been of extraordinary interest to the press. Washington not only “outspied” the British to win the Revolutionary War, he used espionage throughout his Presidency. Washington as the Father of American Espionage really appeals to the public — especially the children.”

One of the things that will appeal to locals are the hours. Unlike other museums, the Spy Museum will be open until 8 p.m. every day during the spring and summer. A couple or a family can make an evening out of it. The new museum has much more than just the display area.

Before or after their museum visit, guests can take advantage of the Spy City Café, which has 50 seats, plus sidewalk café seating for 30. Here, one can seat at tables with imbedded maps and spy scenes while enjoying soups, sandwiches, pizzas and made-to-order salads.

Upstairs, an upscale restaurant and bar called Zola's will be open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Named after Emile Zola, the famed French author who penned the Dreyfus Affair, guests can enjoy dining in rooms decorated in rich reds and warm gold tones. They can sit in one of the high-backed deep red velvet booths or have a drink in the sleek oval bar, designed with rich cherry wood, tectonic metal sheeting and rich red velvet fabric.

The fact that there is so much emphasis on food is a new concept for Washington. Shulman noted how the different setup is apparent even from the outside, given the fact that retail is in front and the museum is in the back of the building.

"It will be interesting to see how the emphasis on food and beverage will work," said Shulman. "Hopefully, they will complement each other." It is also anticipated that the restaurant will become a destination spot, in and of itself.

As a special event planner, Palmer is looking at the museum from a somewhat different perspective. Private event facilities feature loft space to seat 150. They can be rented for a large cocktail reception or an intimate dinner party. Palmer thinks that the prices are a little high, but that it would be an interesting evening given the fact that guests would be able to tour the museum as part of the event.

And, of course, what would a museum be without its gift shop? Laughlin has written some of the "shelf-talkers" for the museum. These are the cards placed next to items giving information about the product.

"What I was most surprised by was the wide range of these objects. It ranges from the very high-tech to souvenir items," said Laughlin. There will be plenty of items for the children, such as fingerprint-dusting kits, puzzles and scientific kits. There will be a wide range of books. They will be selling a variety of secret listening devices and hidden video cameras. "It's amazing what you can put recording devices and cameras into," said Laughlin.

When asked about the appropriateness of these items, he said the manufacturers say that there are many other uses for the products besides spying. And the information in the museum is all de-classified so that it's available to the public anyway. Laughlin said that several of the board members have background in intelligence. "What impressed me is that members of the intelligence community have been so involved since the beginning," he said.

IT'S NEW, IT'S DIFFERENT and that in itself is enough to attract many locals. But is it worth the price of admission?

Shulman said that he's been telling his neighbors in Alexandria that they should see it. "Go, have fun. It's something you've got to do," he said. Surrounded as we are by the many government bureaus, the locals, more so than visitors from other areas, will leave with the question,

"Do you really know who your neighbor is?"

Elaine Flynn, local tour guide, also attended the hospitality party and had similar thoughts. "The Spy Museum has certainly accomplished its mission of creating a buzz around town. When I received the invitation to the opening marked TOP SECRET, I knew they had a winner. It created quite a stir in our house with everyone asking what it was about. After seeing the exhibit I am more aware of who might be watching people and with what gadgets. We certainly have come a long way from the first tape recorder on view. The introductory video said that there are more spies in DC than in any other city in the world. So when we see people acting suspicious, there is a good chance that they are."

Walking through the museum, you learn just enough to make you start to look at things a little different. The logo "ALL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS" looms above as visitors start their foray into the School for Spies. Visitors are asked to assume one of the identities listed on an initial display. Around the corner, they will be asked to correctly identify their name, age, city and state where they were born, destination, length and reason for trip. There is something mildly rewarding about correctly answering all the questions and it makes one start thinking, "Can I be a spy?"

Move on to the Jeopardy-type setup, where three people rush to press their buttons first and correctly identify a scene as being one of three situations. Another interactive display asks visitors to identify the signals, "dead drops" and surveillance systems.

What's interesting about the museum is the depth of coverage. While most people will expect to find information on Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, what they may be surprised to find is information on spies in Queen Elizabeth's time, the role of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as spies and the important role of carrier pigeons in conveying secret messages. During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin supposedly wrote letters to the Hessian soldiers saying bad things about the British and then inserted fliers promising land to deserters in their cigarette boxes. It caused many of them to leave their posts.

A theater halfway through shows cartoons depicting Donald Duck during the war, but what's more interesting is the public service announcement that was broadcast during World War II. It asked all American citizens to send their slides, prints and movies taken during their travels abroad that might depict city or town layouts, which the government could use to identify strategic areas. This was, of course, before the days of GPS and Mapquest.

There's so much more, but perhaps it's best to be surprised. Surprise, after all, is an agent's best friend.