I Spy With My James Bond Eye: The Spy Museums of DC and Berlin
The crumpled piece of paper said – “this is a secret mission and you have an hour to complete Operation Spy”.
I surreptitiously pulled out a crumpled piece of paper as I walked through one of Washington DC’s busier streets; yes, this was the address. I quickly made my way into the building where I was whisked away into the assigned room. I verified the paperwork – I was disappointed; I expected a detailed brief but all I got was – “this is a secret mission and you have an hour to complete Operation Spy”.
And that was it. I plunged right into the mission with no advance training or a license to kill.
The Concealed Camera: The Ultimate Cold War Symbol
I do hope I led you to believe that this was an undercover operation – except that this is the starting drill for one of the most engaging museums I’ve ever visited. Visitors sign up for a mission and then use clues to crack their way through their mission as they explore the museum. Very clever.
Like many of you, my obsession with spies and their world of cloak and dagger was sparked by James Bond movies. Fast cars, the glam factor and cool gadgets; James Bond is probably the world’s best known spy. Slightly ironic, considering discretion is the name of the game. It’s why Washington DC’s Spy Museum set up a special Bond exhibition in 2012 (when the Bond franchise turned 50). It continues to be the museum’s biggest draw. A recreation of the famous Aston Martin from the 1960s that made a reappearance in Skyfall is one of the museum’s most ‘Instagrammed’ exhibits.
“They say you’re judged by the strength of your enemies” – James Bond, in Quantum of Solace.
More than 007, it is the Bond villains who are celebrated at the Spy Museum. There’s a series of mini exhibitions from the 1960s all the way to Spectre with some cool artefacts – from Gold Finger’s Golf Shoes to Franz Oberhauser’s torture chair (last seen in Spectre). You can also subject yourself to some (relatively easy) Bond-esque tests in one of the villain’s lairs!
Washington DC is also America’s museum capital. The Smithsonian museums can take days to cover and they are free to enter. Not the Spy Museum though – you have to spend $22 (Rs 1,400) to enter this private museum that is much tinier compared to Washington’s heritage museums. It has the largest collection of international espionage artefacts (aside from multiple AV experiences) placed in a public display.
There IS more than just James Bond on offer – after all, espionage is one of the world’s oldest professions. You get a history lesson in espionage and the plot thickens once you travel into the 20th century and the Cold War era. Lipstick pistols, enigma cipher machines and the concealed camera – the ultimate Cold War symbol – are all there. From wristwatches (many smartwatches can do this effortlessly now) to hairbrushes to cigarette cases, cams were stuffed into a variety of unsuspecting objects.
Two Cities, Two Museums
Back in the 1980s, Washington DC was quite the spy city with undercover KGB operatives always in the mix. It’s why the Americans, a spy drama set in the Reagan era has gone on to become one of the most popular global television shows this decade.
One of the museum’s interactive experiences allows you to step into the shoes of a spy and take a GPS tour of the city.
But if there’s one city that can truly claim to have been the world’s spy capital during the Cold War Era, it’s Berlin. Berlin’s spy museum is newer than the one in DC and there’s the DDR museum that offers a fascinating perspective of life behind the Iron curtain. East Germany’s infamous secret police – the Stasi, is immortalised in this museum. (The Stasi’s nasty habit of tapping phones of East Berliners was the central theme in Lives of Others that went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 2006.) I spent a substantial amount of time fiddling around with working exhibits of Stasi’s bag of tricks! Governments (even in supposedly free countries) in today’s Internet Age can keep tabs on their citizens with minimal effort – which is probably why we still romanticise the Cold War Era.
The lines were clearly drawn between the good guys and bad guys. And yet it’s slightly tough to appreciate the ingenuity and effort that went into some of those products I encountered in both these museums, especially when I was photographing them on my mobile shooter.
Getting there and around: Air India has launched a direct flight to Washington DC and the city is also connected through multiple airlines that fly via London or the Middle East. DC has an efficient underground metro.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends.)
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