Home / Blogs / A Day of Espionage and Intrigue: My Time at the Spy Museum

A Day of Espionage and Intrigue: My Time at the Spy Museum

By Mike - 05/06/2023

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about specialized decks of playing cards that had more important uses than preventing boredom. Specifically, I researched and reported on the deck of Bicycle-branded playing cards developed by the British Intelligence Service MI9 for use during World War II. These cards held a secret: the outer layer of each card could be doused and wiped away to reveal a piece of a map, which could then be constructed into a full map for use in escaping enemy lines to freedom.

I had no idea such a thing existed prior to writing that article, and the creativity and ingenuity behind that invention absolutely floored me. I also mentioned in that post that the only surviving members of this special manufacturing could be observed at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., a place that seems almost too cool to exist for a person who is a lifelong fan of James Bond, Get Smart, Secret Squirrel, and any other spy media he’s come across. Researching these special cards led me to add yet another place to visit to my bucket list, and then I reluctantly moved on with my regular life duties.

When I closed my laptop on that day, I had no idea my opportunity to visit the International Spy Museum would come up so shortly after.

My partner works for a consulting company based out of Washington D.C., and a few weeks after that article, she invited me to take a trip there with her for a summit she was expected to attend in March. My ears perked up, my eyes got a little misty, and my heart swelled up in my chest.

“I gotta go to the Spy Museum”

She seemed confused, but I couldn’t concern myself with that at the time. Not even thinking to confirm my desire to go on the trip out loud, I gently squeezed past her to get to my computer and immediately begin planning my visit to the International Spy Museum. Time slots were confirmed, tickets were purchased, and bags were packed in short order.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to land and immediately head to the museum. There were flight delays, traffic, and unaccounted travel time that resulted in missing my scheduled time slot for entry, which they seem to be quite strict about. Thankfully, the Customer Support Agents who work for the museum are incredibly kind and helpful, and they were able to reschedule my visit to the following day due to my extenuating circumstances.

The international spy museum located at L'Enfant Plaza in Washington DCOne more night of sleepless excitement later, and we made our way to the museum. Washington D.C. in mid-March is beautiful in both climate and appearance. The cherry blossom trees that line the streets were beginning to bloom, and the remaining wisps of Winter chill fought for their place as Spring arrived to relieve it, resulting in sights and weather that made our mile-long walk to the Spy Museum from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History quite nice.

What didn’t make it so nice were the many hills that made up our path. As a born-and-raised Floridian who is used to nothing but flat land as far as the eye can see, walking just about anywhere in the DMV was a trial and a tribulation.

My sore legs and protesting ankles faded into the back of my mind once I could see the museum. In the near distance, a hulking mass of metal and angled glass was visible, and the International Spy Museum building is something I would consider to be a marvel of modern architectural engineering. It makes a very good first impression.

A 1964 Aston Martin DB5 is parked inside the lobby of the spy museumAfter what felt like one million laborious steps later, we stepped into the museum’s sleek lobby. As if there was any doubt about how awesome the next several hours of my life would be, an Aston Martin DB5 was parked in the corner, and an unmanned drone was suspended from the ceiling.

I began to lose track of my goal as I marveled at everything in that room, but then I snapped myself out of it, checked in, received my top-secret cover identity for the Undercover Mission Interactive Experience, and was then ushered with a group of other excited spy aficionados into a theater with the widest panoramic screen I’ve ever seen where a short film about the history of spying played. Like all great educational films, it was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

When the legendary actor’s dulcet tones ceased, the doors at the opposite end of the theater opened, and my group was released into the museum proper. It was wondrous.

I was surrounded by artifacts, factoids, and stories about the brave men and women who underwent the dangers of collecting intelligence for their respective countries in times of conflict. In addition to taking in all of the exhibits and information present, I also took the time to participate in the aforementioned Undercover Mission, for which I was given a card that contained a series of credentials as my cover.

Undercover mission card spy museumWhile I was at the International Spy Museum, I was no longer Mike Alexander. I was instead Micha Taylor, an architect from Bilbao, Spain who was visiting Almaty, Kazakhstan for work. My codename/callsign: HOURGLASS. Throughout the museum, there were terminals where I would scan my Undercover Mission card and complete a series of objectives on a touch screen. At these terminals, I constructed a chemical sniffing device, picked up a dead drop, concocted a disguise, and ultimately tracked down a dangerous cabal that was using a flower shop as a front for their black-market chemical weapon sales. Needless to say, they were busted before I left the premises.

In between those Undercover Mission interactions, I explored every nook and cranny of the museum and took in every piece of information I could. There were lipstick pistols, blades hidden in shoes, and several tools and devices designed to be concealed within… specific parts of the human anatomy…

Hey, when being made can result in death, you’re probably more receptive to certain extreme measures.

All told, I was at the International Spy Museum for just over three hours. In that time, I learned about far too many things across two entire floors to cover everything here, and you should really experience the best parts of this place for yourself. What I will do, however, is share with you a few of my highlights of the experience so you can get a good idea of what to expect if or when you do ever visit.

Game-Based Artifacts

The most relevant exhibits to this blog are the artifacts throughout the museum that center around cards and board games. Shockingly, there were quite a few, and their ingenious inventiveness is honestly startling.

A set of dominoes featuring a hidden tools compartment on display at the spy museumBefore we entered the spy theater, there were a few things to look at to pass the time in between showings. One of those things was a set of dominoes that concealed tools that would be useful to captured soldiers. The top and bottom half of each domino could be separated to reveal a compartment where tools could be hidden, and the piece on display had a teeny tiny map of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

In the first exhibit room, there was also a chess set contained in a small case. I’m sure this particular set was used countless times to engage in intense battles of strategy, but the case contained more than just kings, queens, and pawns. It also had a hidden compartment with maps, a compass, and money for whatever location you happened to be in. These weren’t your normal everyday items either. The maps were printed on paper that was made from the bark of the Mulberry tree, which gave it far more durability than traditional paper, and the compass was a swinger compass, which is a version of the tool that consisted of a diamond-shaped piece of metal that could be hung from its included string or left to float in some water to indicate north.

MI9-developed Bicycle playing card with concealed mapIn the same vicinity as the potentially life-saving chess set, the very object that began this whole journey was suspended in a glass case for all to see. The MI9-developed Bicycle map cards were right in front of me, in all of their glory. My partner couldn’t really understand why I spent so much time staring at such a relatively innocuous artifact when there were so many things around it, but it was kind of a full-circle moment for me, and I was grateful she allowed me to have it.

Like the Bicycle cards, the previous two items were also a product of MI9 during World War II. The lads in the lab must have been very, very busy.

Later on, I found the intimidating “calling cards” the U.S. Army left behind for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, which I also mentioned in a previous blog.

Animal Agents

Spying and acts of espionage are not only carried out by humans. Over the years, a number of different animals have also been enlisted to help in the act of collecting information, and the unique characteristics of some of them have even inspired some equally unique spy gadgets.

I saw a slithering drone designed by Dr. Gavin Miller called the ATS (All Terrain Snake), which was designed to do recon in any environment for the purpose of search and rescue. The drone itself was on display, and a screen behind it showed what it looks like in action.

Next to the snake drone was a display honoring other “Covert Critters”, including spy pigeons that had cameras strapped to their chests, the affectionately named Acoustic Kitty which had tech implanted to allow for remote eavesdropping as it freely roamed high-security locations, and, perhaps the most upsetting, rat corpses. These were emptied and used to hide dead drops because, who’s going to pick up a dead rat unless they know it contains important information?

Cinematic Spies

You can’t craft an experience about the world of spycraft without mentioning iconic spies in films across time, and thankfully the International Spy Museum didn’t disappoint.

An extended display covered the inception, planning, and execution of a CIA operation in collaboration with the Canadian government that inspired Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo, going into great detail about the real people involved and how they pulled off the rescue of six Americans after the American Embassy in Iran was overrun.

A wall covered with spy movie posters in the spy museumJames Bond obviously made an appearance along with just about every other movie spy you could probably think of, including Melissa McCarthy’s character from the movie Spy in a room dedicated to movies about spies. Each wall was covered in posters with everything from Mission Impossible to Alias to Archer and even some foreign films I didn’t recognize. This room also had a projector that ran scenes from many great movies on a loop, a case full of merch like the Corgi Toys Aston Martin DB5, and an interactive experience where you had to remove a cylinder to disarm a bomb without touching the sides in a set amount of time. It took me a while to do it correctly, and I had to wait my turn while I watched children struggle with it, but it was very fun and worth the wait.

And with that, I’ve reached the end of my tale. I’m done regaling you with my awesome experience, and I thank you for sticking around to read it! I highly recommend the International Spy Museum if you happen to be in the D.C. area, and it’s an experience I’m going to annoy my family and friends with as long as my memory holds up.

James Bond 007 playing cardsOh, and of course I had to pick up a deck of themed playing cards on my way out.