Given the cluster of world-class free museums available in Washington, D.C., the fact that the International Spy Museum has drawn six million-plus visitors since opening its doors a decade ago is saying something. If you're older than seven, not only does the museum charge for admission (adults $19.95, children 7-17 $14.95), it also convinces legions of espionage fans to pay extra for add-on experiences.
So what does this say? The museum must be doing something right, and if you're in the District with kids, particularly ones older than seven, this complex of buildings in downtown Penn Quarter does indeed do several things right.
For starters, the International Spy Museum has, from its beginnings, found a balance between history and fun, which is perhaps best illustrated by the permanent exhibit School for Spies. Encourage your kids to pause a little longer than they normally would in front of glass display cases, as many of the tools of the spy trade are naturally small and subtle. This includes the KGB buttonhole camera that shoots pictures behind the false button of a coat and the MI9 "Escape Boots," complete with a hidden knife that allowed British pilots to cut the tops off these distinctive boots so that they resembled civilian shoes, permitting the pilots to blend in behind enemy lines.
If this spyware fails to wow your kids, a recreation of the Aston Martin DB5 used in the James Bond movie Goldfinger might do the trick. Seeing the Bond car's armored shield slide up from the trunk was worth the price of admission for me, but it no doubt packs more punch if you've seen the movie many times and fantasized about using the shield and three-pronged tire slashers on the open road, which thus far my children have not.
The museum also successfully tosses out factoids that kids (and their parents) actually want to read. One display about the art of disguise notes that if you simply put a pebble in your shoe, it'll cause you to walk differently. Take the pebble out and walk normally, and you've effectively changed your appearance in the eyes of anyone who might have been on the lookout for the guy who was walking funny. Try it and you'll see.
For wannabe special agents 12 and older, Operation Spy is a simulation replicating a covert mission through a fictional country, requiring you to move through various rooms, solve puzzles, and engage in such activities as spying on people and rapidly “escaping” at various points from one room to the next. Parts of the simulation require working with fellow “operatives” (other museum guests who pony up the $14.95 for the experience), which is perhaps why I found certain activities a little too intense – I witnessed two museum guests who had no previous relationship getting downright snippy with each other as they tried to crack open a safe. Perhaps that’s all part of the fun of a reality experience, and, if you like that sort of thing, it ends up being a good value for the hour you spend working through the activities.
For the 13 and under set, there are also special group events that are decidedly less intense. If you're visiting town in October, there will be a sleepover on Oct. 13 (a night at the spy museum!) that will walk kids 9-13 through spy training while their nearby adult guardians partake in their own mission ($115 per person, snacks and light breakfast included, register by phone: 202-654-0933). And, on October 20, a morning workshop for kids 8-11 will delve into the secrets of disguise, going beyond pebbles in shoes – make-up artists and hair stylists will be on hand to transform participants ($30 per person, no grown-ups allowed, advanced registration required).
The October 20 workshop includes a souvenir photo of your child in disguise, and this is probably a good time to note that no photography is permitted within the museum, but the gift shop somewhat ironically sells real tiny spy cameras, as well as all manner of spy memorabilia and whimsical souvenirs. The shop is open to the public, which is helpful if you wish to return at a later time (as I did) to knock off some more of your souvenir shopping.
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