Exhibition Espionage—G&A at the All New International Spy Museum

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The original International Spy Museum opened in 2002, with the help of exhibition design firm Gallagher & Associates (Silver Spring, Md.) who, once again, were brought on to shed light on the shadowy world of spycraft—this time in a new location.

The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC officially opened on May 12, having recently moved from a location north of the National Mall and adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery to L’Enfant Plaza, two blocks due south of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. A quick 10-minute walk from both the National Mall and The Wharf development, the Spy Museum’s leadership view it as a bridge between the established Mall and the burgeoning Wharf.

More importantly, the new facility in effect doubles the organization’s space for education and programming, including a larger permanent exhibition space, a temporary exhibition space, flexible classrooms and a theater accommodating up to 160 visitors, ideal for lectures and films. Event space was an important goal, too: The rooftop provides nearly 360-degree views and the glass-encased indoor event seats up to 500 guests.

The move location initially was supposed to be across from the convention center, at the Carnegie Library on K Street. The shift happened partway through exhibition design work by Gallagher & Associates, who have a long history of working with the Spy Museum. It’s been 16 years since the original International Spy Museum in Washington DC opened. The exhibition design project started in the late 1990s with G&A Founder Patrick Gallagher and G&A Principal Cybelle Jones at the helm, an ongoing client relationship with the museum was kindled. So, when Spy reached out to G&A in 2014 to begin the complete redesign, the two took leadership roles on the project.

Espionage has long held the public’s fascination across media, from historical accounts to dashing Hollywood heroes—and more recently, in the news. “Spycraft has evolved dramatically since we established the International Spy Museum in 2002,” says Spy Museum Founder Milton Maltz. “It’s never been more important for people to understand and appreciate—especially in a democracy—the many roles espionage has played, and continues to play, in shaping our lives, our country and the world we live in.”

The museum’s future-focused view informed many decisions about exhibition content, like focusing on real-life stories about individual spies, modern intelligence techniques, moral quandaries, intelligence limitations and failures and the emergence of cyberwarfare—including foreign interference in elections. Artifacts, audio, video and interactives complement and heighten the experience, but the focus has shifted slightly away from Hollywood depictions of spycraft and gadgetry.

Visitors are faced with questions like: Would you support the torture of suspected terrorists? “We want to be provocative, but we don’t want to tell people what to think,” Chris Costa, the museum’s executive director—a former military intelligence officer—told NPR recently. The team worked with current and former intelligence personnel like Costa using declassified information to craft real-world scenarios. The museum offers un-biased, politically neutral views on tricky topics by presenting information alongside multiple points of view and allowing the visitor to decide for themselves.

The healthy dose of reality fuels the visitor experience, encouraging thoughtful engagement. The first version of the museum stopped at the Cold War and focused more on fiction, but this approach is more serious and authentic. “It’s the difference between Jason Bourne and James Bond.” explains Rod Vera, senior associate and studio director. “With less glamour and more reality—it ultimately ends up being more entertaining because you feel like a real spy.”

The overall approach to the concept of the museum was twofold: create a sequel to the original museum—bigger, bolder—that also gives the visitor an experiential “lesson” in spying that complements the history and artifacts. This meant telling different stories throughout history and the present day, with different players and in new ways—many with new media and technology.

A challenge posed to the design team from the client was to disconnect from creating a rigid graphic system that relates to the Spy branding. The Spy team was firmly against anything that would feel like a branded experience, pushing for thematic scenic approaches whenever possible, right down to the typography. “They wanted visitors to feel surprise at every turn,” says Vera. “It was a sizable challenge for the design team, to have the design taking on the character of the varying subject matter throughout.”

“As designers we wanted to have these obvious overarching design elements, but once we understood each gallery as a universe, not the entire museum as the universe, the result was better [than it otherwise would have been],” adds Ariel Efron, creative director, media at G&A. Efron maintains there are visual and structural threads that link the exhibitions, but the intent was to make them all feel quite different. It drives at the heart of the spy experience—predictability is a serious risk.

The flow of the open scenic spaces and the non-repetitive, non-ostentatious way new media is used throughout shows restraint. The G&A team was careful and methodical in their editing of the lengthy and complicated subject matter, too; subjects like cyber terrorism required perfect balance in order to educate without avoid stirring up panic.

“Our vision for the new Spy invites the audience into a world of intrigue—a personal exploration that immerses visitors into the experience of living their cover,” Jones points out. “Through objects, immersion, light, and media, the visitor becomes the subject, and the exhibits become the stage.”

Guests enter the gallery space on the fifth floor and are offered an RFID badge with a new spy identity, which tracks their progress throughout the digital experiences in the museum and tests their abilities. In “Red Teaming,” new “agents” explore the methodology used to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Mental traps, patterns and biases that can prove disastrous in the intelligence world, are exposed through a series of interactives called “Mind Games.”

Guests try their hand at lock picking and are challenged to find hidden clues before finding themselves staring into the cyber abyss in an infinity room. The room, designed to be a pivotal and thought-provoking moment, is also sure to be a selfie favorite despite the heavy content: technology that gives governments, shadowy groups and individuals powerful new tools that can be dangerous weapons. “We worked with experts to describe this new frontier—what we’re already seeing the beginning of, and the next 20, 30, 50 years from now,” recounts Efron. “People think of, say, hacking global infrastructures as science fiction, but the truth is it’s not that far away.”

Other interactive experiences delve deeply into historical conflicts, like the spy work that helped the American colonists win the Revolutionary War. “Berlin: City of Spies,” leans heavily on scene setting—incorporating original sections of the Berlin Wall and original artifacts from Stasi offices—the experience is completed by an interrogation room where visitors can test their skills of deception by attempting to deceive their companions.

Alongside the new digital experiences, some of the beloved parts of the original Spy remain—like the crawl-through tunnel” and “Trojan Horse”—albeit reimagined and more relevant than ever. Once again, G&A and Spy have raised the bar and blurred the lines between entertainment and education. This time, with a deeper sense of responsibility and commitment to the gritty realities of espionage. “I’m very proud that we are now expanding the Museum to meet the ever-growing need and desire to learn about the threats we face and the stories of the men and women who are so critical to global security and stability,” stated Maltz.

If the press and the public are any indication of success, the new International Spy Museum can be filed under mission: accomplished.


Project Name: New International Spy Museum Exhibitions
Client: International Spy Museum (Malrite Company)
Location: Washington
Open Date: May 2019
Total Budget: $162,000,000
Project Area: 140,000 sq ft
Architect: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Hickok Cole
Experiential Graphic Design: Gallagher & Associates
Design Team: Patrick Gallagher (principal); Cybelle Jones (chief creative officer); Rod Vera (team lead); Sarah Thompson (project manager); Ariel Efron (creative director media); Sanne van Haastert, James Hallock, Bailey Whisler, Liza Rao, Adrian Constantyn, Hannah Chiarella (exhibition and graphic design); Jordan Albro, Cathy Han (Illustrators); Kelly Schaffer, Mike Buday, Joanna Chin, Shir David, Juan Patino, Joshua Gallagher, Shwenn Chang, Bryan Ma, Julie Flechoux, Noelle Palumbo, Jonathan Cohen (film and interactive development); Sarah Brockett, Sydney Rhodes, Hilary McGraw (interpretation and content research)
Collaborators: Paul Rosenthal (scriptwriting), History Associates (research), Cortina Productions (interactive media & films), Available Light (lighting design), Electrosonic (AV integration)
Fabrication: Maltbie Kubik
Photography: Sam Kittner