The International Spy Museum, now at its new location in Southwest Washington, DC, explores real-life spies and the history of espionage through the largest collection of international espionage artefacts on public display.
The 140,000 square foot International Spy Museum comprises galleries, educational resources, a lecture hall and a multi-function event space. With a visitor experience – exhibitions, media, retail, lobby, and graphics – designed by Gallagher and Associates, the museum opened in the spring of 2019.
Chris Costa is Executive Director of the attraction. He talked to Blooloop about the museum, its innovative storytelling and immersive design, the reopening, the COVID-19 crisis, and how his background gives him a particular insight into the museum’s subject matter.
A career in intelligence
Costa, a former intelligence officer, served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council (NSC). In this role, he was responsible for coordinating counterterrorism policy and strategy as well as US hostage recovery activities.
He has 34 years of progressive national security experience, with success in strategy policy, special operations, counterintelligence, and human intelligence. Costa has been deployed on multiple contingencies and to combat operations in the Republic of Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
His most recent assignment was with the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as a Program Director in the Operations Directorate. His military awards and decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and two Bronze Stars. In May 2013, he was inducted into USSOCOM’s Commando Hall of Honor for extraordinary and enduring service to Special Operations Forces.
“I have 34 years of government service experience,” says Costa. “I was a US Army intelligence officer; a case officer, practising the art of developing agents for recruitment. It involved developing individuals, and then subsequently recruiting them to provide intelligence, focused on battlefields in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Working for the International Spy Museum
“I had a very interesting early start also as a counterintelligence agent, in the business of detecting spies and conducting investigations. That work, combined with special operations, gave me some unique capabilities.
“So, post 9/11, I spent a lot of time deployed trying to protect our military forces from attacks and collecting intelligence on our adversaries. It’s a background that makes me really excited about being brought on board with the International Spy Museum as part of the education staff.”
He feels that the museum does a good job of depicting the reality of espionage, rather than the romantic fantasy:
“I think the beauty of the International Spy Museum is that we tell some really sober stories. After all, the business has a dark side. But we do a good job of balancing that with the fun aspects of the mission. We’re able to entertain people with interesting stories from across the spectrum.
“We blend entertainment with our educational mission. Children love it, but adults get genuinely excited, too. It’s a fun place to be.”
Origins of the museum
The museum opened in 2002, founded by Milton Maltz. Maltz, who founded the Malrite Communications Group, later The Malrite Company, in 1956, was a code-breaker during the Korean War:
“He was fascinated by the history of intelligence and espionage, and the role they play in the broader world,” says Costa. “It was through his experience as a codebreaker that the idea for a Spy Museum was born.”
“In 2002, he took that idea to DC. When he said he was going to build a for-profit museum on intelligence, a lot of people told Milt that he would fail. The feeling was that no-one would be prepared to pay, in a city filled with free museums. He saw that as a challenge.
“Today, he has his fingerprints all over the spy museum. He is anxious to make sure that what we do is always consistent with his vision. And I think it is.”
Evolution of the International Spy Museum
The museum’s first, smaller iteration was in the Penn Quarter neighbourhood of the city. The new, 140,000-square-foot building at L’Enfant Plaza opened in 2019.
“The vision was to go from a for-profit to a non-profit,” says Costa. “And now we have this amazing, ultra-modern building with eight floors, to include a rooftop. You can see it as you fly into Reagan airport, all lit up. It stands in alone between the National Mall and the waterfront. I’m actually looking at the waterfront right now.”
Visitors to the International Spy Museum can treat their visit as a covert operation. They are met by staff as they leave the elevators:
“You receive an RFID badge, which allows you to participate in all of our interactives, receive your cover identity, prepare to test your spy skills, and if you want to, receive your undercover mission. Some people don’t; they prefer just to dive in and look at the artefacts and exhibits. But a lot of people really do enjoy testing their aptitude, their skills of analysis and memory.
“After checking in, you watch a briefing film, then exit the theatre into Stealing Secrets, our first gallery, and one of my favourites.”
“Stealing Secrets covers what I did: human intelligence; the idea of a case officer with an agent,” says Costa. “We tell a series of stories and have kiosks where you can hear a former spy tell the story in their own words. There is Morten Storm, for instance, who had access to Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen; then we have the artefacts to complement the story that he tells.
“It’s a self-guided tour. So, people can spend as much time listening to Morten Storm as they like, or they might be more interested in the gadgetry. We have everything from concealment devices to shoe phones; surveillance equipment, counter surveillance equipment, briefcases that collect intelligence, tape recorders. It’s fascinating.”
Telling spy stories
One of Costa’s favourite stories in the Spies and Spymasters exhibit at the International Spy Museum is that of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the Green Prince, a Palestinian who worked undercover for Israel, and Israeli intelligence officer Gonen Ben-Yitzhak. He explains:
“We have a mini theatre that tells the story of their interaction. I love it because while kids tend to get all excited about spies, and about being a spy, this story makes them a little more pensive. They realise that spying has risks.”
“When you listen to the story of Mosab and Gonen, the handler and the agent playing off each other, it really gets to the idea of risk tolerance and the role of trust in that agent and handler relationship. I’ve lived that.”
The International Spy Museum and STEM education
The International Spy Museum is not, says Costa, in the business of making spies: “What we’re really doing is educating the public, but they’re having fun while they’re learning.”
Still: “My son went to our previous museum in the early 2000s and fell in love with the idea of counterintelligence and espionage. Now he works for the government.
“The museum certainly plants the seed, but we’re careful to tell parents that really, this is about STEM. It is about critical and creative thinking.”
He gives an example of programming:
“We have a program for kids of eight or so to learn about the American revolution. It’s all about learning history, but while they’re taking that class, they are also learning how to do secret writing. This was applied very adroitly by both Americans and the Brits at the time.
“Secret writing often translates into a fascination with science. They might not become spies, but they may develop an interest in forensics.”
Where the Stealing Secrets gallery that highlights spies, spymasters and gadgets, Making Sense of Secrets is about exploring codes, analyses, and decision-making through interactive kiosks.
“Having talked about the romantic part of espionage, the International Spy Museum then transitions into the analysis,” says Costa. “This is where adults and children test their analytical acumen on our interactives. It’s a great opportunity to see a whole different side of intelligence.
“We hear from analysts from the CIA that put together the intelligence picture for Bin Laden’s location, which is a build to one of our really exciting interactives. Here the guests can play the role of a CIA analyst. They look at all of the intelligence that the United States had, and make decisions based on it.”
“This incredible interactive floors people when they participate in it. It educates adults as well. Because it’s based on collection, analysis, and then decisions. President Obama had to make a decision, but the guests have a chance to poke holes in the theories to test their own assumptions. It is all critical thinking. So that’s exciting.
“After that, you get to deep dive into covert action. Everything from the Bay of Pigs to the story behind the ice axe. We have the actual ice axe that killed Leon Trotsky.”
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The Why We Spy exhibit deals with the moral dimensions of espionage. The highlight is the original letter from George Washington, written on February 4 1777, enlisting Spycatcher Nathaniel Sackett as his ‘intelligence director’ for the sum of $50 per month plus $500 to set up a spy network:
“We delve into the Culper network, the story behind the letter, and the reason we bested the Brits. We didn’t fight them better on the battlefield, but we did out-spy them.
“Although I’m a former intelligence officer, we are not cheerleaders for intelligence. We layout the stories, good, bad, and let the public make their own judgement.”
The updated International Spy Museum has an infinity mirror room which represents cyberspace: a contemporary battlefield for the spies of today.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Costa. “Visitors get a chance to see cyber intrusions on an interactive that shows just how vulnerable we are.”
The An Uncertain World gallery considers the threats, real and perceived, faced by all countries, and the variety of responses, from interrogation to surveillance, tracing the fine line between living safely, or in an oppressive security state.
Costa comments on one of the gallery’s exhibits, Turncoats and Traitors:
“It’s a stark reminder of the insider threat, everything from Aldrich Hazen “Rick” Ames, a former CIA officer turned KGB double agent, to Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five.
“I got goosebumps when I first came to the museum and heard a rare recording of Philby’s voice. I touched his smoking jacket, too. And was mildly rebuked by the staff, who reminded me to put on gloves first. But it was my first day at the museum – what did I know? And I was so excited to touch Kim Philby’s actual jacket.”
The International Spy Museum also explores the subject of terrorism:
“I had also worked at the White House as a policymaker on counter-terrorism. When I came to the museum, I wondered how we told the story of terrorism. Because it can be challenging and controversial, even in terms of definitions.”
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The museum explores terrorist occurrences including the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, looking at how intel agencies responded, and how further attacks – such as the plot of the Toronto 18 – were thwarted.
“I think we do a great job of capturing all aspects of terrorism, in fact,” says Costa.
East vs West
One exhibit offers an immersive environment which contrasts West and East Berlin during the Cold War.
“You enter checkpoint Charlie, or you can go through a tunnel, and find yourself transported into 1970s East Germany. There are the remains of a Trabant car, and artefacts used by the East German intelligence service. The adversaries I dealt with during my very first cases in the early 1990s were the Stasi.
“Here, we have many artefacts that belonged to Markus Wolf, who was the Stasi’s number two for 34 years, and one of the most well-known spymasters during the Cold War.”
The interactive experience allows visitors, having sneaked into ‘East Berlin’, to discover the tools and techniques of the Stasi in a hotel room filled with concealment and surveillance devices, and to assess one another’s lying ‘tells’ in an interrogation room, before exploring a Stasi office.
At the end of the visit, those who undertook an undercover mission access a full debrief. This is based on their performance throughout their curated, RFID-tracked journey through the museum.
The International Spy Museum and COVID-19
Inevitably, COVID-19 and the lockdown have had an impact on the International Spy Museum. However, it has, Costa says, pivoted with ingenuity:
“We’re fortunate in that this is a brand-new 140,000 square feet building with a high-quality fresh air ventilation system. We are nostalgic for the old museum. But it would not have been easy to modify it to welcome guests back, which is exactly what we have done here.
“But I also want to brag about our staff, because we were ahead of this. I was on the national security council. I’ve conducted interagency meetings on really serious and weighty issues. And I can say in all certainty that in this situation the International Spy Museum staff functioned like the national security council.”
“The President and COO of the museum, Tamara Christian, and our team came together ahead of the curve (no pun intended) like it was an intelligence problem.
“When we saw there was going to be a shutdown, I reached out to my network of people in the community. Tamara went out to museum people across the country. We were able, without panicking people, to shut the museum down in an orderly way, and to communicate to our diverse staff, across our leadership and to our board.
“For a little over 90 days from the time we shut down, we had 200 hours of meetings to get ready to reopen.”
The International Spy Museum has now reopened:
“We reopened with the goal of making sure that the public was confident, and that our staff is comfortable. We have incorporated everything from limiting capacity, through social distancing to stylus pens. So, you don’t have to touch the interactives. Virtually all the interactives can now be activated without touching”.
Today in #SpyHistory: German Army introduced the #ENIGMA machine for comms security, 1928. The Germans believed the Enigma provided an unbreakable code for communication. A complex 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 combinations. See the ENIGMA on display @IntlSpyMuseum “Codes” exhibit. pic.twitter.com/9A5QRHED9d
— The Spy Museum (@IntlSpyMuseum) July 15, 2020
During the lockdown, the museum continued to engage its audience, says Costa.
“We had to pivot what was never designed to be virtually virtual online education. This is a hands-on experience. It is being in the room with the kids, helping them with secret writing. Almost overnight, we pivoted to live virtual programming, for both children and adults.”
Engaging with visitors online
“Although the museum was physically closed, our staff were working seven days a week. Because that’s what the mission entailed to execute the virtual programming. We offered 160 virtual programs for adults, students, teachers, and families. These were available in all 50 US States and also in 60 countries across the world.
“We even turned on programs for seniors with dementia. The feedback was extraordinary. Parents were grateful because they were responsible for teaching their kids and keeping them occupied while they were working.
“We offered puzzles to be downloaded, a curriculum designed for parents at home, playing out every day. We estimated that we went into 6,400 households based on people registering for programs.”
Ongoing content offered by the International Spy Museum includes virtual field trips, free classroom lessons, resources, and activities supporting the curriculum. There are also real-life stories of intelligence professionals, spycraft, and interviews with ex-spies, intelligence experts and espionage scholars.
Spy Chat at the International Spy Museum
“It was fascinating to listen to our curator talking with a former Russian spy that was rolled up by the FBI,” says Costa. “I knew the story. But I sat at home while I was eating dinner listening to this program and it was just compelling.
“Then we have had history happy hours. A local watering hole in DC would show our guests how to make an adult beverage with a spy theme. And then we would deep dive on a topic, or look at spy trivia.”
“I also do a program called Spy Chat, once a month. This is a serious program where I look at current affairs, national security problems, from terrorism to counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and just broad national security and intelligence issues that are in the media.
“I’ll invite another former intelligence officer, we’ll play off each other, and then we take questions from the audience. We didn’t know how it would work, as a virtual program. It went from 50 people to 300 people across the world, listening to our program and providing great feedback.”
“We’re able to build on a larger network than we dreamed of,” says Costa. “We were able to turn this horrific COVID-19 problem into a positive because our staff are so creative and passionate. We are open again, but we have changed the paradigm for the Spy Museum to do Spy Chat virtually.”
Museums adjust to coronavirus pandemic with new safety measures in place.
Spy Museum’s “Safe and Stealthy” campaign gives every visitor their own stylus to manipulate digital interactive exhibits. Capacity is limited & masks are required. Via NBC News https://t.co/F0cx3ve6oM pic.twitter.com/RARAZ6s8W2
— The Spy Museum (@IntlSpyMuseum) July 14, 2020
Other core elements remain in the digital space too:
“The museum has absolutely pivoted to make sure the public is safe. We want them to be confident. We want them to come to the International Spy Museum and to attend our virtual programs.
“Our Spy Camp is fully booked; this year, they will be going to virtual Spy Camp, and they’re going to have fun. It will be an incredible learning experience.”
Background image: Sam Kittner for the International Spy Museum