museums&MORE Summer 2019
What We Do in the Shadows By Sam Ujvary

Intelligence, espionage brought to light at International Spy Museum

Spy Museum is the name, espionage is the game.

From the CIA and Ian Fleming’s 007 eminent character to Brad Meltzer’s Decoded series and other conspiracy theories about spies and governments, fewer things are binge-worthy than this world of intelligence and intrigue.

In a striking new 140,000-square-foot museum deserving of holding all the secrets we want to know, the International Spy Museum in decidedly accurately placed Washington, D.C. offers a new look into the world of surveillance and the ingenuity of a worldwide order’s members. In what former CIA director Allen W. Dulles refers to as the least understood and most misrepresented of the professions, intelligence is aptly represented in the new museum.

“We opened our doors to the public in 2002 at our building in Penn Quarter,” said Karen Simonet, vice president of retail at the museum. “As our collection grew, we realized we needed a larger home to showcase the artifacts and content we wanted to share with the public.” Ask and you shall receive. They now have that opportunity with a completely new, purpose-built facility in L’Enfant Plaza, just one block away from the National Mall and the Wharf. 

Within its walls, the Spy Museum contains the champion collection of spy artifacts in the world, and a wealth of first-person accounts from top intelligence officers and experts to help educate visitors about the impact intelligence has had on world history and current events. Visitors can listen to actual stories from actual spies offering their experience for education and entertainment purposes.

With the evolution of technology as it pertains to spies, so too does the museum’s presentation of its exhibits. “The Museum will utilize RFID technology to bring the visitor into the role of the spies, agents, and analysts and take on their own mission – and allow visitors to immerse themselves in the material,” said Simonet.

Not only does the museum focus its efforts on gear and fascinating stories, but they have an entire floor that concentrates on how to spy. Tactics and techniques are taught to visitors, who can then have their skills tested. You literally get to become James (or Jane) Bond for a day. Further, the museum has learned to be savvy in covering the darker side of espionage. The failures, the mistakes, and the catastrophic. The juxtaposition of genius gadgetry and stories of ethical woe proves the larger space is not in vain.

The gift shop at the International Spy Museum is one that is fit for a double agent. It’s sleek and bright. Sitting at 5,000-square feet, the shop carries apparel, games, quite an impressive collection of books – nearly 1,500 titles — and, of course, spy gadgets. The product mix comes from trade shows and more than 150 vendors and publishers both domestically and internationally, making this a true worldwide enterprise. A shop this size needs a great team. Theirs consists of nearly 40 employees who work seasonally, part and full time. “Our best-selling apparel and accessory programs include wares with the phrases ‘Deny Everything,’ ‘I’m Lying,’ ‘I Was Never Here,’ and ‘Hacked,’” said Simonet. Among their toys and gadgets, disappearing ink, decoder pens, diversion safes, and camera pens are beloved items for spies-in-training.

Before opening in May, the museum based around stories of stealth had been abuzz in D.C., and the entire team is certain it’ll to live up to the hype.

Sam Ujvary

Sam is the managing editor of Gift Shop Pets, Museums & More and Party & Halloween Retailer, and is a contributing editor for Gift Shop Magazine. She has a copywriting background and has been in publishing for six years.

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