Beyond The Smithsonian

Owing to its proximity, my interest in poking about in history, and the ease of getting to it by mass transit means, Washington DC has become my most common short holiday from New York. As I am not one who finds visiting well-trodden tourist destinations to be distasteful or unfulfilling, I have logged more than my fair share of time at the city’s sundry monuments and museums. I have gazed upon The Bill of Rights, the Korean War memorial, that painting of George Washington we put on our money, and the Wright Brothers flyer. But while I consider destinations like The Smithsonian to be among this country’s great national treasures, I am also a fan of slightly less respectable educational endeavors and spectacles.

DC offers plenty for the curious young man or woman who has had their temporary fill of the buildings lining the National Mall. Below are four of my favorite slightly more niche museums. I would not call them off-the-beaten path — the International Spy Museum, in particular, is a heavily trafficked destination. But they are four museums that offer up a slightly different experience than museums of histories both natural and American.

The International Spy Museum

Across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, where you can see a portrait of Richard Nixon painted by Norman Rockwell that is stunningly good (seriously — it was my favorite in the whole museum), is DC’s most popular independent (that is to say, not sponsored by the government) museum. Taking a queue from Disney amusement parks, the International Spy Museum is as much a production as it is a museum. Patrons are even assigned secret identities in the museum’s “briefing room” before being released into the museum proper. The first room is themed around testing your mettle as a spy — spotting dead drops in photos, finding hidden cameras, things like that — as well as showcasing displays on maintaining secret identities, disguises, and so on.

From there, it’s room after room of spy stuff and the accoutrements of espionage. The museum walks the line between education and entertainment, history and sensation, but it does so quite well. James Bond’s Aston Martin sits right next to a room dedicated to espionage during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, which in turn brings you face to face with displays about East Berlin and the STASI, the OSS and OSI, code breaking, and cyber espionage — which highlights a major problem with our modern technologically driven society. With so much done and stored electronically, we are leaving precious few interesting relics around to be added to museums twenty or thirty years from now. To go from display cases of lipstick guns and hidden radios and Enigma machines to a display that is basically, “Uh, well, here’s a laptop and an ID badge, because that’s pretty much it these days” seems sad. For the sake of future museum goers, modern-day cyber-spies should be required to at least, I don’t know, buy a clever case for their laptop or disguise their USB sticks as a pack of gum or something.

The museum usually has at least one big special exhibit, and for my most recent visit it was “Exquisitely Evil: Fifty Years of Bond Villains.” Actually, I feel like every special exhibit I’ve ever seen here was about Bond in some way, but I’m good with that. Exquisitely Evil was a pretty substantial and sprawling exhibit, featuring video clips, movie posters, themed rooms, and lots of props and Bond relics. You can even test your strength by hanging on a moving fake steel girder. Obviously, this section is more about espionage entertainment than history, though some efforts are made to check Bond with real-world spy facts. Occasionally. I was just happy to see Emilio Largo’s awesome blazer.

Not being associated with the government in any way, the Spy Museum costs money. But the $20 entry fee can be at least partially offset by fairly easy-to-find specials and deals online (check Gold Star). Even at full price though, if you are a fan of the not-so-secret history of cloak and dagger the International Spy Museum is pretty much a must.

National Museum of Crime & Punishment

Just down the street from the International Spy Museum is the similarly designed National Museum of Crime and Punishment — or just the Crime Museum for short. Like the Spy Museum, this one mixes theme park set design with museum and comes up with a pretty entertaining menagerie of displays, the plaques of which I insisted in reading in my best “crime doesn’t pay” newsreel narrator voice. Also like the Spy Museum, there is so much to look at and read and try to remember that one could lose the better part of a day trying to take it all in. The first half of the museum is dedicated to criminals and the punishment of those who commit transgressions against the law — from colonial rakehells to pirates to Wild West outlaws, and with a welcome chance to have myself photographed yet again in a set of stocks. Needless to say, the Prohibition era is always my favorite. The room dedicated to serial killers (and the tendency to turn them into cultural icons) was suitable unnerving. I don’t think I really needed to see John Wayne Gacy’s clown stuff.

Just as the Spy Museum can’t do a credible history of espionage with talking about cyber espionage, so too can a crime museum not consider itself thorough if it doesn’t have something about cybercrime. And just as in the Spy Museum, the Crime Museum’s display on cybercrime gives it the ol’ college try, but there’s just nothing about cybercrime that doesn’t make for a lackluster display. You can only have so many swipe access cards and photos of someone sitting at a laptop while wearing a ski mask. Cybercrime is going to have to come up with something way more interesting to leave behind for future generations than an email log and shady browser history list.

We then move into the Punishment portion of the museum, which sadly isn’t a collection of horrible medieval torture devices (you’ll have already seen some of those) but is instead a history of law enforcement and police work. The remainder of the museum is dedicated to tying itself in with CSI television shows and America’s Most Wanted. The CSI tie-in comes in the form of a big mock laboratory full of information on how forensic science works versus how it’s often depicted as working. I would have liked to have seen a little more on the history and evolution of forensic detective work (there is some), but overall, it was a pretty interesting foray in modern medical police work. After that is the America’s Most Wanted studio, including John Walsh’s signature leather jacket. The show was cancelled in 2011, but the studio is still intact for you to wander around in.

I would not classify the Crime Museum as a DC must-do, but it’s close. I had a lot of fun, got creeped out a few times, learned some stuff, and generally thought it was very good. Like the Spy Museum, I highly recommend you seek out discount tickets. They are easy to find.

National Cryptologic Museum

There is something unnerving, especially these days, about driving up to the NSA. Technically, your trip to the National Cryptologic Museum should only take you by the NSA headquarters; not actually to it. But let’s say your directions tell you to turn left on a certain street, and that street turns out to actually be a parking lot, which you don’t turn into because, hey, that’s not a street; it’s a parking lot. Yeah, then you suddenly find yourself weaving around traffic obstacles and explaining to the well-armed and perfectly polite NSA guard how bad you are at following simple directions. Then you get to U-turn in the NSA HQ parking lot, maybe listen to some phone calls, and get yourself back to the proper location. This is not an official, or even recommended, side-tour. So let the point be, for anyone going to the museum: turn left into that parking lot with the jets in it.

Once at the museum proper (it’s free, by the way), ask for (or just accept the offer of) a docent-led tour. The docent is a recently retired NSA guy who makes a pretty interesting museum really interesting. Intersecting somewhat with the contents of the Spy Museum, the museum covers the early days of cryptology, from royal court intrigue to the Revolutionary and Civil War, and then on to the World Wars, the Cold War, and later. Of particular interest is the Enigma machine display. First, I’ve seen pictures of the Enigma breaking device the Brits developed — but I had no idea it was the size of a car. I also didn’t realize how much of deciphering Enigma messages relied on brute force grinding of computer circuits. Also setting this Enigma display apart from similar ones at the Spy Museum: it’s hands-on. There are Enigma devices sitting out, and you are free to use them to type up some coded messages of your own and send them to friends who will have no idea what the hell you just mailed to them. I know it’s nerdy of me, but there was a real thrill to be had from using one of these machines.

Other displays covered the similar Japanese encryption devices and attempts to decrypt them, something that ended up being much harder to do since the Japanese military and the Japanese diplomatic forces did not trust one another and used entirely different code machines. From written and radio messages to voice and telephone, the museum then covers the birth and evolution of telephone encryption and, for once enters the era of electronic communications with a display that is actually interesting: thanks mostly to the fact that it contains a bunch of huge old super-computers from the 70s, 80s,and 90s. Almost as impressive as the Enigma stuff was the display featuring the first “hot line” to The Kremlin. Turns out it isn’t a red phone under a cheese dome sitting on the President’s desk; it’s a huge teletype machine they kept over at the Pentagon. Apparently, that phone on the President’s desk is for calling Batman, not Russia.

Oh, there’s even a display dedicated to hobo symbols!

The National Cryptologic Museum takes some getting to. It’s about forty-five minutes outside of DC, and you have to have a car. And you have to put aside your feelings regarding the NSA, should your feelings about them be as conflicted as mine. But it is really a fabulous museum, and one very few people visit. Because it is directly related to the NSA, there are a lot of artifacts you wouldn’t imagine seeing in any way other than photos (they even have the cut-up plaque some Soviet kids gifted to the US Embassy that ended up containing a spy microphone). And you get to play with an Enigma machine! If you have any interest at all in the history of espionage and cryptography, do what you need to do to make it to this one.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

OK, for an article about DC area museums other than the Smithsonian, this one is a bit of a cheat since it’s part of the Smithsonian. But since the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is not anywhere near the rest of the Smithsonian buildings (it’s actually out at the Dulles airport), and since it is one not nearly as many people know about or visit, I think it counts. Plus, there’s a goddamn space shuttle there. The Udvar-Hazy Center is basically where the Smithsonian puts everything that is too big for the better known Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall. It’s a massive — and I mean MASSIVE — hangar stuffed with more planes, helicopters, and space ships than you can possibly see in a day.

Spanning the whole of the history of aviation, the Center has everything from Wright-era flyers and gliders to military planes to experimental home-kits you used to (maybe still can?) be able to buy from the back of magazines. Rare, sometimes “last known existing” planes from World War II era Germany and Japan rub elbows with modern fighter jets, commercial jumbo jets, a Concorde, Mercury and Gemini space capsules, and yeah — the space shuttle Discovery, in a space that was previously occupied by the Enterprise until the Center had a chance to get a space shuttle that actually went into space. Having gone to college in Florida during the 1990s, I’ve seen my fair share of space shuttle stuff, including launches, but I will never fail to get a thrill over being up close to “here, this thing went to space.” Best of all, they decided to keep it basically in the same shape it was after its final re-entry. So it’s not just some perfectly scrubbed museum piece. It’s a space ship, and it looks like it’s been to space.

Its presence can fair overwhelm, but there’s plenty else to look at. Maybe even too much. Stendahl Syndrome can set in if you are not careful. Oh, there’s an SR-71. Oh, hey. here’s the Enola Gay. And that floating platform you always see flailing out of control in archival footage from UFO and Area 51 shows? Yeah, they have that, too. Stairways, ramps, and catwalks let you climb higher and higher toward the ceiling, giving you an entirely different perspective on things. If you are a nut for air and space museums like I am, bring a big memory card for your camera (or, I don’t know, a lot of rolls of film) because you will burn through it. This is perhaps the best museum DC has to offer, and one of the best in the country (and probably the world). It’s quasi-freeish, meaning entrance is free but the drive there (you can get to it via a mass transit combo of DC Metro and busses) is partially along a toll-road, and there is a $15 parking fee. It’s worth it. I wandered mouth agape through the whole thing. It is an outstanding place.