Saturday, October 16, 2010

[FIND] Travels – Washington, DC Tours – Part Two

800 F Street NW, Washington, DC

Friday, October 1, 2010, Mid-afternoon

It’s afternoon in the nation’s capitol, fresh, almost painful blue skies. There’s a hint of something cool just around the corner, fall maybe. Steve and I casually glance both directions along the 800 block of F Street NW, scanning the crowd, alert, ready. Across the street, unsuspecting tourists stroll in and out of the National Portrait Gallery, used to be the old Patent Office. They’re unaware, ignorant.

Steve snuffs a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, tosses the butt into a nearby trash can. We steal quietly into the door just under the staircase that leads up to Zola, haunt for agents, raconteurs. The Le Droit building’s historic façade presents itself to the world, all neat and Italianate, the way McGill intended it back in 1875. But, once inside… the building immediately restyles itself into an ultra-modern interactive guide through the history of espionage.

The International Spy Museum is the only public museum that dedicates itself to the tradecraft of spies. Now…in a nod to full disclosure, it is only fair to point out that I have always been enamored of spies, I’m a geek, a fiend, I love spy lore, history, movies…so…I may not be entirely unbiased. But…this place is…, simply put, cool.

The best way to get the point across is to just list some of the things we witnessed here and then direct you to the website, which is an experience in itself.

A few things we saw:

Lipstick Pistol

Enigma (the cipher machine)

Tree stump listening device

1970’s vintage button hole camera (KGB)

Shoe heel transmitter

Aston Martin DB5 (Bond, James Bond)

and on

and on

The thing I like the most about this museum is the interactive nature of the place. Kids dig it, no doubt. But the museum directors do not in any way neglect the adults. There’s enough literature and information to keep the intellectually curious among us occupied for hours. There are enough cool spy gadgets to entertain those of us who have difficulty maintaining focus for any period of time. And then there are the experiences.

Spy in the city, spy at night, and operation spy, all mission based, all incredibly fun.

As with any self-respecting museum, this one employs the obligatory exit through the gift shop. But this gift shop may be the best I’ve ever seen. Seriously…they have actual spy gear for purchase. 4 gig button-hole cameras, 4 gig key-fob cameras, actual working spy gear, things we use on a daily basis. This is also my new source for spy literature. Last year for our holiday season newsletter, we bragged on a book called The Real Spy’s Guide, written by Peter Earnest, Executive Director of the Museum. We still highly recommend this book, but the more important thing is…this museum’s book store is a dream. They have stacks upon stacks of fantastic books.

We picked up a copy of The Handbook of Practical Spying, a tongue-in-cheek handbook that actually offers useful tips, and The Private Investigator’s Handbook, a kind of do-it-yourself PI guide. Had I enough money and space in my luggage, I could have done some real damage in this store. Check it out online, here.

If, by chance, you find yourself strolling around DC in the vicinity of Ford’s Theater, or just north of the National Archives, make the hike to 800 F Street NW. Look for the stairway that leads up to Zola. Just underneath that, you’ll find the entrance to the International Spy Museum. Just incase you’re afraid it’s going to be hard to find, the Le Droit building, in all of it’s Italianate glory, has a huge sign on the corner that reads, International Spy Museum. Drop by and check it out.

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