Last day in Washington DC and I couldn’t resist the urge to do a swift run around the sites. I started at the White House and navigated the large puddle build up due to the crappy weather down to the Washington Monument and all the way down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. Which was packed. I think I’ve said this before but it’s impossible not to get swept up in the rhetoric and patriotism of it all. Regardless of weather national project was successful or not, what Lincoln and his predecessors set out to achieve is genuinely moving. I couldn’t help but think, though that they may have based the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens’ arch villain Snoke on the Lincoln memorial itself. In the basement of the Lincoln memorial is a tiny, unimpressive “museum” of a few small, meagre displays, blessedly free of security clearance.
The Lincoln Memorial.
Pondering all of this I continued over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, into Virginia and the Arlington Cemetery. Purpose built to commemorate the war dead and return service people of the United States, this is literally sign posted as hallowed ground. A sombre mood hangs over the throngs of pilgrims – they take this stuff pretty seriously. And for a country that has participated wholeheartedly in all of the major wars for the past 100 years that makes sense. I walk past the iconic identical white tomb stones and up the hill to the the grave of JFK and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, including their two of their short lived babies which is a touching memorial to the closest thing the United States has come to a Royal Family.
The JFK Memorial.
Navigating out of Arlington Cemetery is a little tricky, compounded by the fact that I didn’t want to do the wrong thing due to the very present and scary security measures.
Feet tired, I jump in an Uber to…
The International Spy Museum
This was on the recommendation of Elizabeth Merritt from the Center for the Future of Museums. Completed in 2002, the International Spy Museum is a big tourist draw card (I had to line up for ages) and is dedicated to the history of espionage. The huge, multi-storey building houses around 750 artefacts on the topic of espionage that, although they focus heavily on American spy activity, date back to the Greco Roman period. It was established by ex-spy Milton Maltz who was a code breaker during the Korean War. Elizabeth informed me that, unlike a lot of not-for-profit DC museums, it was established as a for-profit LLC – not because Maltz particularly wanted to make squillions of dollars, but because as an ex-spy, he didn’t want to have board oversight and a public register revealing secrets to the world. Cool.
I opted for the immersive experience “Operation Spy”. Meeting at the bottom of the stairs, a laconic International Spy Museum staff member took a group of us upstairs to start our mission. Half of the group were, I’d say 10 year old kids including Toby (whose birthday it was, we sang happy birthday) and the other half were drunk women, I assume on a hen’s night/afternoon. Nonetheless, our guide tastefully managed our unruly group and led us into the fictional nation of Khandar – a kind of mash up of South America, the middle east (including various areas of Arabic graffiti) and South East Asia. All of this lead to a general pastiche of the “Enemy of the USA”. Our goal was to capture a nuclear detonation device in the hands of Khandar’s shady Director of Energy via a mole we had supposedly planted, code named Topaz. Speaking of code names, we all had to nominate one for ourselves at the start of the experience, I opted for “Boomerang” which our illustrious guide, misinterpreting my accent yelled out “Bee-Ham!” in response.
The experience itself consisted of several adjoining rooms that took us from faux ops centre, through to lift shaft, through to basement, through to enemy office, through to hydraulically activated back-of-van until finally reaching a helipad, complete with industrial strength fan, sound effects and spotlight. The office itself was killer fun as we had to ransack the whole place to find a way to access a safe and box containing said nuclear detonation device. I was excited to find the keys hidden on a hook underneath a desk.
Unfortunately, due to both the age of participants and drunkenness, we sucked as a team and scored quite poorly. That said this was a truck load of fun (even though I was a essentially on my own) and a pretty good crack at a museum doing a slightly theatrical immersive experience without it going too far down the tacky path. A little more enthusiasm from our obviously over it tour guide and I would have given it 5 stars.
Admission: $14.95 for the Operation Spy experience or $28.85 for additional admission into the museum. No photographs allowed.
Digital engagement: Useful website that I really should have visited earlier to pre book my tickets and session time. A second experience, “Spy in the City” leads would be agents with a supplied device on a tour around DC using GPS and AR.