The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. has become one the city's most popular tourist attractions. Three and a half million visitors have passed through its doors since it opened in 2002. Exhibits here feature poison pens, umbrella guns, high tech surveillance gear, and other tools of the spy trade. VOA's George Dwyer reports on one of the world's most intriguing museums - an institution that cautions visitors: "All is not as it seems." Bill Rodgers narrates.
It is no secret - Washington, D.C.'s International Spy Museum has become one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
"We are, as far as we know, the only International Spy Museum in the world," says Peter Earnest, the founding executive director of the Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA. [U.S. Central Intelligence Agency]. "We have actually exceeded our own expectations. And I think you can attribute that to a couple of things. One, people inherently like to learn secrets, things that have been secrets and now are uncovered."
The Museum features the largest collection of espionage artifacts ever publicly displayed, including miniaturized surveillance devices, or "bugs," designed to avoid detection.
"So this is a museum about secrets. It is very story-driven. We tell the stories of people who have been in espionage, what they did, what they sacrificed; try and give a sense of what they gained. Was it worth what they did? "
The historic roots of the spy trade are traced back as far as a copy of "The Art of War," a Chinese military text written 2,500 years ago. Items that were once top secret are now available for public inspection. And while none of today's top secrets are shared here, the museum does still strive to remain contemporary.
"And so this is what this experience really is all about. You know you walk through here and you pick up bits and pieces of intelligence," says museum historian Thomas Boghardt. He describes the challenges posed to visitors in an interactive exhibit called 'Operation Spy,' where they will a track a stolen nuclear device at a model CIA 'front' operation. Boghardt adds, "And the better you are the more information you will get and, as I said, that is really what 'Operation Spy' is all about. You gather information as you go and then you determine, 'What action can I take?'"
Of course, then there is also the issue of counter-espionage.
Earnest says, "As you know one person's patriot may be another person's traitor, but what really was the motivation, what was the ideology? And so trying to find out secrets and the stories behind them is part of what drives people here."
Searching for secrets through espionage continues today. And according to the Spy Museum, more spies are now at work in Washington, D.C. than in any other city in the world.