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EXPLORATIONS - August 7, 2002: International Spy Museum - 2002-08-06


This is Mary Tillotson.


And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about a museum that has just opened in Washington D-C. This unusual museum is becoming very popular, very quickly. It is the International Spy Museum.



The International Spy Museum opened on Friday, July nineteenth. The next day a crowd of people waited in the summer heat for as long as two hours to enter.

After they got in the museum, they learned about famous spies. They saw unusual communications equipment, special weapons and other items. They also saw many objects that used to be secret, including different cameras used by spies. Some of the cameras can see through walls.

The museum has a huge collection of pictures of spies. It provides information about what it is like to be a spy. And, it has shows what happens to some spies when they are caught.

Some of its information about spies is history. Other information is new, some only a few months old. Among the stories the museum tells is about two American men who were found guilty in recent years of spying. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen are spending the rest of their lives in prison.


Information is extremely useful to a government and its leaders. Almost all governments employ people who collect information.

National leaders use this information to make the best possible decisions when their country is involved in a crisis or other difficult situation. The correct information can help a leader prevent war. It can save lives, improve the economy and protect the citizens of a nation.

Valuable information does not have to be secret. It can be found in newspapers, magazines and books. However, some people collect information that a government considers secret. These people are spies.



History experts say that spies have always existed. The International Spy Museum says the first known document about spies is almost four-thousand years old. It is a small piece of pottery made of clay that was found in Syria.

The information written in the clay tells about the capture of several spies. It does not say what happened to them.

The museum has a copy of a military book written two-thousand-five hundred years ago. Chinese military expert General Sun Tzu wrote the book, “The Art of War.” It is still read today in military schools. In the book, Sun Tzu explains spies should be used and can find good information almost anywhere.

The International Spy Museum says the first known successful group of spies may have worked in Britain. The Museum says Sir Francis Walsingham was the Secretary of State for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the First. He became her Secretary of State in fifteen-seventy-three.

Mister Walsingham controlled a large group of spies who gathered information about people in Britain. Experts say there may have been one-thousand-five-hundred spies in this group.

Mister Walsingham also collected information about foreign governments. However, he was more interested in anyone who might be a threat to Queen Elizabeth and her rule. History experts judge these efforts to have been successful because he was able to protect the queen from several enemies who tried to overthrow her government.


American military commanders used spies against the British during the American Revolution. George Washington’s letter about the use of spies is in the International Spy Museum. There also is material from spies on both sides of the American Civil War and from spies from countries that took part in World War One.

The museum has a large collection of material about World War Two. Spies did very useful work for both sides during the war. They gathered information about enemy plans and caused problems for the enemy deep in occupied lands.

The Museum also explains how almost every government has used spies to gather secret information during peacetime. It tells how the secrets for making the atomic bomb were stolen.

The work of spying is not just history. It continues today. The International Spy Museum says more spies are working now in Washington D-C, than in any other city in the world.



If you were going to build a museum that cost more than forty-million dollars to tell the story of spies, how would you do it? The company that owns the International Spy Museum asked the advice of a long list of experts.

Several are retired members of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Two members of this group are Admiral Stansfield Turner and William Webster. Both are former heads of the C-I-A. The museum’s experts also include General Oleg Kalugin. He once was the head of the former Soviet Union’s intelligence service, the K-G-B. General Kalugin says he worked with the museum so all sides of the spy story could be represented.

The International Spy Museum attempts to represent the work that spies do. It is not trying to present a political idea, or the story of one country or government. The museum makes it clear that a person considered a dangerous spy in one country can be considered a hero in another country.


The International Spy Museum is in a group of older buildings near the center of Washington D-C. Inside, the museum is extremely modern. It uses the newest electronic technology to tell the story of spying.

Visitors are surrounded by steel and glass walls. On one wall is the warning, “All is not as it seems.” Many of the walls hold television equipment that shows information as the visitors walk through an area.

On many of these television sets, different pictures appear telling the same story. The museum also includes several small theaters that show films about spies and spying. A visitor soon realizes there is a lot to see and a lot to learn.



Visitors to the new museum say the information provided is very interesting. They especially like the objects used by spies.

Many of these items are unusual. They look like common items, but they are not. Some are extremely small. For example, a button on a man’s coat is really the lens on a camera. Another camera looks like a wristwatch.

A small, brown suitcase is really a radio used by allied spies working in German occupied France during World War Two. The suitcase radio was used to send and receive messages from the spy’s headquarters in Britain.

The museum also has many different weapons that are difficult to recognize. One looks like the round lipstick tube a woman uses to place red color on her lips. It is really a small gun that can fire one bullet. Another gun looks like a large ring. It can fire five very small bullets.


The International Spy Museum is too small to have an airplane inside it. Yet airplanes are very important to the story of spying.

The museum has pictures of spy planes and the photographs they have taken. One interesting camera was used by a bird. This happened before the invention of airplanes. A special small camera was attached to the bird’s chest. The bird flew into the air and the camera began taking photographs. The result was not always useful, but provided some information.

Many years later, the United States used the fastest aircraft ever built to gather photographic intelligence. It was called the S-R-Seventy-One Blackbird. It could travel at three times the speed of sound. The Blackbird’s powerful cameras could take photographs of objects as small as a child’s ball from as high as twenty-six-thousand meters.


The International Spy Museum is owned by a company that plans to build museums for profit. An adult has to pay eleven dollars to enter the International Spy Museum. A child must pay eight dollars. The museum also includes a large gift shop and two places to eat.

Some critics say eleven dollars is too much to charge. Yet, the people who must wait in long lines to enter the museum do not seem to mind paying that amount.

Oh… we almost forgot to tell you. If you visit the spy museum, be careful what you say while you are there. As you pass through the museum’s twenty-four rooms, hidden devices are recording what you say.

As you finish your visit, you can listen to these recordings of visitors’ comments. In the International Spy Museum, nothing is as it seems.



This Special English program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our studio engineer was Holly Capehart. This is Steve Ember.


And this is Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.