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Go Undercover at D.C.’s International Spy Museum

Go Undercover at D.C.’s International Spy Museum
By Candyce H. Stapen

We’re rifling through the desk of the fictional Khandar’s director of the Department of Energy. Our team’s mission: discover and scan any documents that might lead to the return of a stolen nuclear triggering device. But neatness counts: Alek Bitar, the suspect, might return at any moment plus a misplaced calendar or a musical CD stored on the wrong shelf could tip-off Bitar that he’s under surveillance.

Operation Spy, a relatively new addition to the International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., gives participants a one-hour, hands-on secret mission. The interactive spy adventure, based on real cases, immerses us in the world of intrigue. Our group of nine must work together to decipher clues and discover the culprit. (Group size is kept small, ranging from four to 15 participants).

It’s fun to pick a code name and race through the various sets, from a back street bazaar, underground tunnel to a safe house. Among our sleuthing challenges are monitoring video surveillance, decoding a cell phone call and piecing together other clues.

If you’ve ever wondered just what kind of secret agent you’d be, reserve a ticket to Operation Spy. At mission’s end, the intelligence chief grades the group. We received a 4 out of a possible 5. Not bad for neophytes.

If you’ve never visited the International Spy Museum, then book a combination admission ticket and Operation Spy experience. Upon entering the exhibit area,you pick a cover and memorize your “facts.” Tests come later.

Since the museum’s opening, the facility has added more interactive exhibits as part of its quest to reveal the “secret history of history.” In blown-up photos of street scenes, would-be spies are asked to pick-out secret signals, understand disguises and find dead drops (places where agents deposit money, documents or even micro chips to be picked up).

Gadget-lovers have much to admire. See such real items-- actually issued and used—as a 1965 KGB lipstick pistol, a flashlight that’s a gun and a 1978 Bulgarian umbrella that the KGB used to fire poison pellets.

Other exhibits detail the history of spies from the Greek Warriors hidden inside the Trojan horse to homing pigeons used to carry secret messages in WW I. Learn about women spies such as Josephine Baker, chef Julia Child and Marlene Dietrich and discover the intelligence gathering challenges facing real-life agents in the 21st century.

For quick snacks, try the Spy City Café, but if you have the time, reward yourself for your super-sleuthing by dining at Zola, adjacent to the museum. The restaurant, which describes itself as serving “straightforward American cuisine,” has sleek booths, rich woods and well-stocked wine stations that would make any debonair double agent feel at home. Standouts are the crab cakes with roasted corn relish and the grilled ahi tuna.

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