Art and Culture

The International Spy Museum

If you’re vacationing in Washington, D.C. and you have already seen The White House, The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial, have we got a museum for you.  No, not the Smithsonian--although that is great too--but The International Spy Museum.  


The International Spy Museum was founded and constructed by Milton Maltz and The House on F Street, L.L.C.  First conceptualized in 1996, the museum cost nearly $40 million.  It was officially opened to the public in 2002. Maltz, its founder, was actually “a code-breaker” who served in the Korean War. In 1956 he established the Malrite Communications Group (later renamed The Malrite Company). He also served as the CEO (chief executive officer) until selling the company in 1998.  His company coughed up half the funds needed to start the International Spy Museum with the remainder coming from the District of Columbia itself in the form of TIF bonds and enterprise zone bonds. In fact, in the 1980s  the International Spy Museum became part of a large project headed by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation to rejuvenate the Penn Quarter.  Ah but there is more recent news as well.  Last April it was officially announced that Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners would be designing a new museum.  


The International Spy Museum is a museum dedicated solely to the craft, history and current role of spying or espionage. The International Spy Museum is (located at 800 F Street Northwest) in Washington, D.C., and houses what is believed to be the singularly largest quantity of international spy artifacts on public display anywhere.  Presently situated in the 1875 Le Droit Building in the Penn Quarter section of Washington, it can be found across the Old Patent Office Building which is how the home of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


The history and current state of The International Spy Museum is nothing, however, compared to the contents.  The International Spy Museum is said by some to hold the most bizarre and fascinating exhibits and information one could hope to find anywhere.  If you thought the spy gadgets you have seen in James Bond movies and the TV show “Get Smart” were too fantastic to be believed then guess again. The International Spy Museum contains such exceptional espionage accessories as the tie camera, the lipstick gun, and the “Get Smart”-like shoe radio transmitter.  Yes, believe it or not, the C.I.A. regularly monitored the 1960s TV show “Get Smart” for possible inspiration. There’s also the high-flying pigeon camera.  It was used back in the 1920s when there was no such thing as a spy satellite.  Spies would literally strap tiny cameras onto homing pigeons and said them on their “Yankee Doodle Pigeon” mission.  (Google it if you missed the clever albeit dated reference.) The pigeons would fly over their target as the camera took pictures.  You can see the pigeon's wings in the shots in fact.  Talk about our feathered friends, eh?

Wrapping Up

Chance are if you see some super spy gadget on a TV show or in a motion picture, it has probably already been invented by some nation’s spy agency. One of the only museums in Washington, D.C. to charge a fee for admission.  That is due in part to the fact that The International Spy Museum is a “for-profit” establishment. However, the lease on the present museum site reportedly expires sometime next year.  Have no fears though as  The International Spy Museum is going to be relocated to L'Enfant Plaza.  It will re-open at the new location sometime in 2018.

(All images courtesy of the original owners.)

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