The International Spy Museum is a tribute to spies, spy technology, and secrets. Opened in 2002 in a town full of high-quality, free museums and monuments, the Spy Museum’s engaging, fun exhibits have allowed the for-profit museum to succeed while charging $22 for admission. If you’re at all interested in this kind of thing, it’s time (and money) well spent.
The ISM’s permanent exhibits cover six areas: Starting in Covers and Legends, you get an alternate identity (complete with documentation), and you’ll be introduced to spying as a career. Next comes School for Spies, where you get to see all of the cool gadgets, tools, and tech that spies use to gather secrets, evade detection, and stay one step ahead of their targets. In The Secret History of History, you’ll learn the stories of spies throughout history, how they worked, and whom they helped. From Ballroom to Battlefield covers how spies and espionage worked during the U.S. Civil War.
One of our favorite exhibits is Spies Among Us, which features codes and code-breaking stories from World War II. For example, shortly before the 1942 Battle of Midway in the Pacific, the U.S. had succeeded in breaking part of the Japanese Navy’s encryption codes. That allowed the U.S. to know how many Japanese ships were headed to Midway, of what type, and when they planned to get there. The U.S. Navy’s successful counter-attack, based on this information, changed the course of the war.
If you want to sleep at night (instead of hoarding generators and batteries), skip The 21st Century exhibition, which shows how modern life would be disrupted if a cyberattack were launched against the U.S. electricity grid. For those of us who get jittery when their cellphones aren’t on LTE, this is the stuff of nightmares.
Besides the permanent exhibits, the ISM has a rotating set of special exhibits. The most recent is Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains, featuring the villains from the James Bond movie franchise, their weapons of destruction, plans, and movie props. The best part of the exhibit is when real-life spies tell stories of how their missions sometimes got as exciting as a Bond movie.
The ISM also hosts a 1-hour, interactive spy game called Operation Spy (ages 12 and up). Your team’s assignment is to track down a bomb device and the person who stole it, in a foreign town called Khandar. You’ll need to make contact with a local agent (without drawing attention), break out of a room, decrypt secret transmission, and more. It’s fast paced, but fairly straightforward even for small children. If you’ve got the time, it’s fun.
Operation Spy costs $15 without museum admission, or $29 including museum admission. Buy tickets in advance on the website, and arrive 20 minutes in advance for orientation.
The gift shop’s most popular item is a black t-shirt that reads “Deny everything.” (We bought one to wear around the office.)
The ISM hosts a series of book readings, talks, and presentations on spy- and defense-related topics. Check the website for topics and schedule.