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The International Spy Museum - Ribbon Cutting

by Alan Simpson

ismopen1.jpg (8966 bytes)ismopen2.jpg (9394 bytes)Following an outstanding week of Media Previews, VIP Reception, and the Gala it was finally time to open the International Spy Museum to the public. Hundreds lined the streets around the museum to watch the ribbon cutting. In the sweltering heat one DC politician after another congratulated their cronies, the developers, and the Spy Museum for their vision. Mayor Williams reminded us that the Spy Museum was a part of a Real Estate development, which included restaurants, offices, and apartments.

The illusion that his was a museum finally evaporated, a fact hinted in several news stories.  One reporter commented that you have to exploit loopholes in the rules, wherever you find them. How else would they have got taxpayers money?

Not withstanding the fact that the museum is only a small portion of a typical Big Business Real Estate Development does not detract from the contribution the museum makes to the understanding of the craft and technology of espionage.

The aerial ballet of dancers claiming to be Mayor Williams amused the overheated crowd in the sweltering heat, interesting but superfluous to the opening of the attraction itself. The crowds were here to see the artifacts, and exhibits not celebrate the developers, and their political friends on the committees. But this is election year and the hacks must grab every minute of TV time.

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Finally one and a half hours after starting the event the museum was declared open, and the crowds lined up. The huge line of visitors snaked around the adjacent Portrait Gallery, and if their numbers are a barometer, the museum could do well.

ismtick.jpg (10493 bytes)With microphone and tape I joined the pushing mass of eager visitors, and thanks to the museum staff joined the first group to tour the exhibits. With seven years working closely with Disney, Universal and Sea World in Orlando, crowd management weaknesses are easy to spot. Even though the crowds were watching my performance on the video screens, in the foyer, they were impatient to start their touchy-feely tour. The groups then moved on at another 9 minute video. The initial traffic flow is OK for small numbers of mature intelligence buffs, but an irritation for younger visitors.

Walking round the empty museum on Tuesday, and Thursday the exhibits were interesting and pleasing to the eye. The exhibit staff have put a lot of thought into the displays. Filled with patrons they create problems not seen on earlier visits. To groups of children they are dark passages ideal for running around. For adults they can be an irritation, as one group wants to move on, another blocks the passages digesting the wealth of information.

The first comment I made on Tuesday, as the exhibits were first unveiled was that few knobs, switches or earphones would remain after a month. The number of hyperactive schoolkids trying to dismantle exhibits was amazing! I wonder how long it will be before some kid kicks through the windshield climbing over the car in the Berlin exhibit.

Listening to generations spoilt by exposure to Disney, and Universal theme parks comment on what they get for $11 could be a problem for the attraction. Comments on what they can see for free in the Smithsonian, or NSA Cryptological museum could be a problem for the museum. Deciding whether it is a museum, or attraction could be a problem for us all!

But critics seem to forget that Disney, Universal, and the Smithsonian all started from dreams, and this is the first step in creating an experience based on the theme of espionage.  It should be kept in mind that a Disney attraction such as Splash Mountain costs over $125 million and the marketing budget to launch a new ride is bigger than the budget for the entire museum. The economies of scale, which make theme park attractions so cost effective, do not work in high rent areas of Washington, yards from the White House. Some critics argue that the museum is a throw-in to provide restaurants next to the Convention Center. That would be a great disappointment.

The museum does have some very well equipped areas suitable for presentations, and briefings. A continuous program of media presentations will have to be incorporated, the sooner the better, to satisfy the appetite of the attention-depleted younger generation. To further amplify the claim that the museum is a whitewash, and PR project of the CIA, there are several retired CIA people to answer questions, and deflect question on CIA screw-ups and direct attention towards the success of the OSS against Hitler, and in the Cold War against the Evil Empire. Forget questions on the Bay of Pigs, Phoenix, or messing about in elections, or arranging coups.

More exhibits should have been dedicated to NSA, and NRO. In fact the NSA are all but missing, as in No Such Agency. The CIA guides politely smile, and can't talk about the "other" intelligence agencies. The huge resources gathering dust in Fort Mead are sadly missing from the exhibits. The same for intelligence artifacts, and displays from the rest of the world.  This is not the EPCOT of Intelligence. You will not visit the Chinese pavilion. But these are artifacts, and displays within a building. They can be changed as feedback is analyzed and more cash is forthcoming into the actual museum, as opposed to the developers coffers.

On the first hours of the first day, the young staff are taking their jobs seriously and are smarter than found in the average theme park. Good team. The weakest part of the museum was the store. I would question if the designers ever had experience in retail stores in attractions, especially those having streams of visitors passing through them on their way to the exits. I would like to know the amount of shrinkage on the opening, and subsequent days.

I have confidence in Peter Earnest the Director of the museum. Unlike many around him he listens, and will change to meet the demands of the visitors, as the museum evolves. As none of the advisory board has a minutes experience in the management, or planning of a for profit tourist attraction, he will now need to reinvent the wheel, and sustain the interest after the parade has left town. As Malrite has backed the Bond issue the taxpayer will not suffer, and Milton Maltz has deep pockets. This is not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with positive material surrounded by glitz and glamour, or the Holocaust Museum. The genre is difficult to create sufficient "Wow" without utilizing a large quantity of James Bond, even Austin Powers, and Spy Kids. That means royalty payments. and suffering upturned noses from CIA advisers! I tried to remember when "Get Smart" was on TV, but eventually gave up.

For older visitors, with time to walk quietly around the designated route it is well worth visiting. There is a lot of information, mostly accurate, and the exhibits cover a broad range of subjects.

For school trips it is a tour through the world of intelligence, with snapshots of many aspects suitable for further exploration.  The audio visual presentations are interesting, but only if there is low ambient noise. Noisy children detract from the experience, especially when trying to hear the audio commentary. It does cover historical aspects of espionage not normally found in military museums.

As a first step in building a genuine "experience" for those interested in intelligence it is a bold venture, and welcomed. It has a very good location, and a great team. Now the old men formerly of the intelligence, and counterintelligence world, have congratulated each other and left, it is time to build it into a vibrant museum attraction, that is both sustainable and profitable.

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