Heard on the Hill

What’s that thing crawling over my hand at the spy museum?

Newly relaunched, $162 million International SpyMuseum in L’Enfant Plaza doesn’t ‘tell people what to think’

D.C.’s revamped spy museum opened last weekend. Above, the “Finding Bin Laden” exhibit.  (Courtesy International Spy Museum)

The woman encouraged the visitor to slip his hand into the mystery black box. “You should feel a tarantula or spider,” she explained.

He couldn’t feel it, so Jackie Eyl, who helped design the exhibit, plunged her hand in. “Ooh! It just touched me!” she exclaimed, somehow still surprised despite her familiarity with the contraption.

For the record, it’s not a tarantula, but a combination of brushes and mechanics meant to test a person’s willingness to take risks and overcome fear.

It is one of the dozens of exhibits, interactive displays and oddities at the newly relaunched, $162 million International SpyMuseum in L’Enfant Plaza. At 140,000 square feet, it more than doubles the size of its previous location in Penn Quarter.

There’s a video exhibit on a 1920s Russian spy portrayed by an actor from the TV show “The Americans.” There are two videos narrated by Morgan Freeman. Perhaps most impressive of all, visitors are able to use computer kiosks positioned throughout the building to play pretend spy. Visitors are assigned a cover identity based on personality traits (like, say, an archaeologist named Blair Kalb from Rio de Janeiro) and a virtual disguise, and then are sent out to test their spy skills.

That’s a lot of gee-whiz, and the goal, according to Alexis Albion, lead curator at the museum, is to make the place more accessible to all ages. Before, she says, the “sweet spot” for the museum was 12 and up. Now it’s 5 and up.

Still, there are more traditional exhibits, like a full-face latex mask worn during a still-classified covert mission to take down a top terrorist leader, a spy submarine and the Georgetown mailbox that CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames used to communicate with his Soviet handlers.

“We don’t tell people what to think,” explains Christopher P. Costa, the executive director of the museum, who says such a philosophy reflects his former life as an intelligence officer. “We’re not cheerleaders for the community, the intelligence community.”

For the most part, this is true. One exhibit deals with torture and waterboarding, featuring an actual waterboarding kit and board. Another exhibit identifies intelligence failures, including the Sept. 11 attacks, and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

An adult ticket runs $24.95, with discounts for military and senior citizens. Children aged 7-12 are $14.95, while those 6 and under are free.

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