A new museum for lipstick guns, exploding trees

Creating a museum to honor spies can be a tricky business.

First off, it's difficult to create a "Hall of Fame" honoring the biggest stars because unlike, say, baseball players, the whole point of being a skillful spy is to remain unknown. There are no shoe-endorsement contracts for good secret agents. Second, espionage is a dirty and violent business.

That much is apparent pretty quickly at the $40-million International Spy Museum, which opens here Friday. For every exhibit of a listening bug, there's another with a deadly device such as an exploding tree stump.

"In the end, spies are really concerned with trying to gather information," says museum spokeswoman Jennifer Saxon as visitors stare at the "Bulgarian umbrella," a rain shield that fires poison pellets. "But assassinations do happen," she notes.

Spies inhabit a vivid place in the American psyche, part very serious reality (Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames), part pop-culture myth (James Bond, Austin Powers). It's a wonder then, that no one has thought to assemble a collection of spy paraphernalia, gadgetry, and historical information before.

The museum, a privately owned complex dreamed up by some of the people who created Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, comes during a nationwide museum building-boom. Many institutions are springing up to honor many of the people, experiences, and phenomena that have largely been ignored by curators in the past. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, for example, is set to open in 2004. And an expanded Newseum is slated for 2006. But the Spy Museum seems likely to be the biggest crowd pleaser. Even with its admission charge of $11 per head.

It's not just the lucrative disguise kits in the gift shop or even the building's two restaurants that will encourage visitors to don dark glasses, turn up their collars, and rendezvous at 800 F Street, NW. It's the sheer variety of interactive exhibits.

Ever wanted to have your own alias? You can choose a pre-concocted one and see if you remember enough to make it past the computerized border guard at the end. There is as yet, however, no virtual interrogation in a back room with a bright light aimed at a solitary chair if you fail.

Only 5 percent of the space is devoted to the pop-culture artifacts such as 007's Aston Martin from "Goldfinger." Most of the museum opens the dossier on the real world of cloak and dagger.

An exhibit called "School for Spies" features more than 200 espionage devices including a heel knife, a lipstick gun, and a "through the wall camera" able to snap photos through a pin-sized hole. Fans of "Get Smart" are sure to pause at the shoe heel transmitter, another lovable East German way to keep tabs on suspicious characters. And for sheer adolescent tittering excitement, it's hard to beat the "tiger dung" transmitter, used to mark important ground sites in Vietnam – and presumably great fun at CIA parties.

Another presentation, "The Secret History of History," shows how George Washington used invisible ink in the Revolutionary War and how pigeons were outfitted with cameras during World War I to shoot aerial photos behind enemy lines. The museum even revisits the earliest days of espionage: the Trojan Horse. There is a model of the equine traitor and its contraband of Grecian troops in the building (all that's missing is an ejector seat).

But there are more mundane artifacts as well, including the actual mailbox CIA double agent Aldrich Ames marked with chalk to communicate with his Soviet handlers. Ironically, Saxon says, a Georgetown woman who lived near the box often complained about it being dirty and called the Postal Service to clean it regularly. Apparently, however, not often enough.

Former FBI and CIA head William Webster, who sits on the museum's advisory board, says the museum is long overdue. While some have tried to honor the spy craft in the past – there is, for instance, a small group of exhibits at CIA headquarters in Langley Va., – but not many eyes have seen those efforts.

"When you see everything at the Spy Museum you realize that every president has wanted ... more and more intelligence," Mr. Webster says. "And that has caused problems because you have to be careful in how you use it."

If there is a shortcoming in the museum, Webster says, it is the gadgetry and stories may distract attention from the purpose of intelligence, "which is to gather information so that decisionmakers can make informed, thoughtful decisions."

Not to mention that the museum, which has been in the works since 1996, faces a different world today from even a year ago.

Much of the space is devoted to the "great game" that went on during the cold war between the two superpowers, and while some of the exhibits obviously have applications post 9/11 – a good miniature camera never goes out of style – the rules have clearly changed.

In some ways, the museum almost makes one wistful for the most frigid days of the cold war when the enemies understood each other and, if nothing else, the lines between the players and spectators were better defined.

"There was a time when the CIA and the KGB had a quiet understanding that they would let each other know if they were the target of a terrorist plot," Webster says. "We had back channels. There was a general understanding that all great powers suffered from terrorism. Whatever else we did not have in common, we had that one thing in common."

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