The International Spy Museum celebrates 20 years of revealing the tricks of the trade


It’s no secret: Lucy Stirn loves working at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. And not just because she tells kids about spies hiding things in fake tiger poop – a highlight of any museum visit.

“You’re never going to see a kid come in and say ‘Oh, that’s boring,'” said Stirn, director of youth education at the museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

There’s something for everyone among the museum’s 10,000 artifacts. Part of the appeal for kids is “it’s a little naughty and a little sneaky,” said Stirn, a former teacher who worked at the museum for 10 years. “They come looking for cool gadgets,” she said. “They don’t know the historical aspects, so we [reveal] this too.”

Visitors are surprised when an object that appears to be one thing turns out to be something very different, said Andrew Hammond, curator and historian of artifacts at the museum.

What looked like tiger poo was actually a device used to detect enemy troop movements in the jungle during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Nobody ever thought to pick it up and examine it.

“All is not what it seems,” Stirn reminds young visitors. Another example: an ordinary-looking dead rat in an alley could have been gutted to hide money or messages. Spies used these rats during the Cold War with the Soviet Union (1945 to 1991). When the strays began picking up the rats, officers doused them in hot sauce. Problem solved.

The Soviets turned the tide in 1945 when students visiting the American ambassador in Moscow presented him with a large hand-carved seal of the United States. The cute present sat in his office for seven years, until techs discovered an insect hiding inside. It took them two months to figure out how it worked.

Many museum exhibits have clever origins. Hammond likes the “amazing” story of pigeons fitted with tiny cameras and let loose on World War I battlefields to photograph enemy positions.

Other artifacts popular with kids include a dragonfly drone, a camouflage suit that makes an agent invisible by blending into the background, and a microdot camera that can shrink film frames down to period size. at the end of this sentence. A special historical artifact is a 1777 letter in which George Washington seeks to start a spy ring during the American Revolution.

There are stories and items from many countries and several “try it” challenges such as defusing a bomb (not a real one, of course) and walking like a ninja. Visitors receive agent names and assignments.

The spy museum moved to its current, larger facility in southwest Washington in 2019. The extra space has allowed for new exhibits that go to the “dark side” of espionage, a source said. manager of the museum. Controversial topics such as interrogation techniques, leaks of classified information and intelligence failures are now included. Workshops with older students can feature discussions of ethical issues (true or false) and current events.

The museum also offers special programs for people with autism or memory loss. And last year it added a robot, so children in hospital can tour the building remotely, controlling where the robot goes and what its camera sees. It’s just one more super cool thing at the International Spy Museum.

What: The International Spy Museum organizes a free outdoor exhibition birthday party 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 19. There will be music, glitter tattoos, decoding and other activities, and free ice cream (while supplies last).

Where: 700 L’Enfant Plaza in southwest Washington.

When: Open Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. During the busy summer months, it’s best to buy timed admission tickets online.

How much: 7 to 12, $16.95; 13 and over, $23.95 to $26.95, 6 and under, free (ticket required).

For more information: Call 202-393-7798 or visit

Do you know the language of “spookspeak”? (Spook is another word for a spy.) Some popular terms include:

Agent: person working for an intelligence service

Blown: when the identity of an agent or a mission is no longer a secret

Cover: the invented identity an agent uses

Cryptology: scientific study of secret writing

Dead drop: secret place where materials are left for another person

Handler: case manager in charge of agents during operations

Mole: spy within an agency who gives secrets to a rival agency

Lyrics: passwords used by spies to identify themselves

The museum offers to-do lists, children’s books and films about spies and espionage. Find them on:


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