Sunday, January 04, 2004

D.C.: City of Spies

We went downtown yesterday to see the International Spy Museum, which opened last year. Unlike many of the museums in D.C., this one is a commercial venture with a $13 admission fee and lots of flash and glitz. It also is pretty crowded.

We got to the museum box office around 10:15 a.m. and secured tickets for 1:00 p.m. admittance. To kill time, we walked up through Chinatown to the City Museum of Washington, which also opened last year.

The City Museum is excellent. It gives a great overview of the development of Washington D.C. from its founding to the present day. It also includes a heavy dose of information for out-of-towners and locals alike about the lack of voting rights in the District. Despite being full citizens of the United States with all the inherent obligations, those who live within the confines of D.C. have no vote in Congress. They also are denied full local governmental autonomy; Congress has the power to approve/disapprove items in the city's budget and it can implement things like school voucher systems over the objections of local officials.

Part of how the museum discusses this issue is through a neat multimedia show that starts off with a kindly tour guide focusing on the monumental core of the city only to face regular interruptions from portraits of various historical figures who tell the history of the entire city, not just its federal role. Some bits of it are bit Monty Pythonish, but it was really well done and informative.

The main exhibit hall is built around a huge satellite map of the original 10 -mile square that made up Alexandria, Washington City, Georgetown, Washington County, and Arlington County. (One interesting factoid: It wasn't until 1871 that Georgetown, Washington City and Washington County were unified into Washington, D.C.) Evelin and I found ourselves crouched down trying to pick out various streets, houses, and exhibits in the National Zoo. On each side of the map are walls with display cases and montages covering different points in the city's history; drawers pull out of the wall, allowing even more items to be viewed. In each wall is a door that takes you inside another bit of history from that period. Upstairs were collections of images of the city over time, including lots of maps, and a look at sports and the city, covering professional, college, and youth sports.

The City Museum is housed in the old Carnegie Library, which was the first public library in the city that was not segregated. It's a gorgeous building, inside and out.

After a quick bite to eat at Ella's Wood Fired Pizza, we headed back to the Spy Museum to take our place in line. Entrance to the museum begins with an elevator ride up to a waiting area where you are supposed to pick a cover identity from those listed on the walls around you. You then move into a briefing room where you're asked to think about what it means to be a spy. They then let you loose into the museum, which is packed with people.

The big problem is that there is lots to see, plus a handful of interactive stations where you try to identify things that look suspicious of where border guards question you in an attempt to break your cover story. It's neat, but when there are that many people trying to go through all the questions on one of two monitors, things clog up. Working your way through the crowd, however, yields the chance to see some neat pieces of kit, including spy cameras, concealed weapons, lockpicks, covert ops vehicles, etc. Most of the subsections are accompanied by videos that mix cinematic spycraft with testimonials from former intelligence officers and old training films. There's even a bit of ductwork that you can crawl through and a listening station to eavesdrop on other museum visitors.

Past all the tools and gadgets, the museum looks at the history of espionage from Biblical days up to the 20th Century. Among the exhibits is a sideroom looking at aerial observation from balloons to pigeons equipped with cameras. The exhibits then move into the evolution of the KGB and various Axis and Allied intelligence agencies and their role during World War II up to the point when the Soviet Union acquired atomic weapons.

From there, you move down a floor to the Cold War, with a heavy focus on a divided Berlin. There's a bit on pop culture spies and a room about Francis Gary Powers and other Cold War high-altitude observation techniques. The last exhibit focused on double agents.

All in all, it was a fun museum, but all the videos and interaction stations and twists and turns among the exhibits made it difficult to get around, especially with how many people were packed in there. If we go back, I think I'd rather go on a weekday in February when it hopefully will be less crowded.

There were some omission that struck me as a bit galling: In the panel about Navajo codetalkers, there was no mention of the other Native Americans who also played a role in that conflict. I went on a small rant about the omission of Native Americans using their language skills to relay messages that the Germans could not decode (albeit not in a formal program) during World War I until Evelin pointed out the small portrait of Choctaw WWI soldiers. Other omissions that bothered me: In the bit on literary spies, there was no mention of Chaucer, and in the bit on ballooning there was no mention of Napoléon's use of balloon-based observers.

While these are the sorts of things that set me off, Evelin was a bit ticked at the City Museum for its use of the word interactive to describe the multimedia show. The museum website describes the show thusly: “The multi-media show presented in the City Museum's 150-seat theater will use sound and light, disappearing sets and all manner of devices to present a program incorporating different perspectives on the city's history and filled with surprises.” But the staff at the ticket desk kept using the word "interactive,” which raised concerns from Evelin that she would have to interact in some manner with the program.

From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition:
in·ter·ac·tive ĭn'tər-ăk'tĭv 1. Acting or capable of acting on each other. 2. Computer Science Of or relating to a program that responds to user activity. 3. Of, relating to, or being a form of television entertainment in which the signal activates electronic apparatus in the viewer's home or the viewer uses the apparatus to affect events on the screen, or both.
The Spy Museum was definitely interactive. There were things to pick up, computers that quizzed you and gave you missions to fulfill, etc. The City Museum show was entertaining and I interacted by learning and laughing (including one good snort-laugh), but it wasn't dictionary-definition "interactive." It did have a faux interaction going on between a never-seen projectionist and characters on the stage, but that was the limit of things ... much to Evelin's relief.

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