Tuesday, December 08, 2009

DC Day 3: Spy Museum and National Archives

After another complementary continental breakfast we headed to the International Spy Museum. This isn't a Smithsonian museum, it's a private, for-profit museum, and unsurprisingly it's a little more slick, more 'entertainment' and in some ways a bit corny, but fun corny. They set the tone in the first two minutes -- literally. They bring you into a room with case files up on the walls and tell you to choose one of them as your cover story, and memorize it. A clock is ticking down the time you have to memorize your pertinent details. (Mine: John Campbell, an American clothes salesman, age 34, born in Mandeville, Jamaica, and currently en route to Budapest for two weeks.) Be sure to get it all because you'll be asked about it later. I actually didn't just memorize mine but started to elaborate on it so I could lie convincingly about it, but the only way you were asked about it later was in multiple-choice questions on a computer screen, during which you pass through security checkpoints, get your mission, and complete it.

The museum itself was a lot of fun and also very educational, and got me enthused for playing espionage roleplaying again. The first section went through spy techniques and gadgets, and if anything, the impressive thing about spy gadgets is not how real ones fall short of James Bond stuff, but how clever and potent they are -- even old stuff from the Cold War and earlier. A few things I saw were things that, as a GM, I would approve in a cinematic or futuristic espionage game, but would probably have been dubious of in a realistic one... but they were real, and in some cases, decades old.

There was also some interesting stuff about spy techniques. Some of this was stuff I knew but it was interesting to go over it again, and some of it was new. For instance, I knew about passive sonar arrays built to track submarines, but I didn't know how the signatures of different ships were recorded for later comparison as visual images, nor did I know how the system was turned over to scientists after the Cold War so it could be used to track whale migrations.

The museum went on from there to a history of espionage, from ancient Roman cryptography, right up to the modern challenges of online cyberterrorism. At times it was a little dry and in a few places (especially near the end) it bordered on being sensationalistic with scare tactics, but most of it was downright fascinating. Throughout, you saw artifacts related to the topic at hand, heard recorded accounts from the actual participants, saw video clips of the events discussed, etc. Some highlights: the masterful disinformation campaigns preceding the landing at Normandy, a section on the role of female spies as far back as the Revolutionary War, detailed coverage of cryptography and codebreaking, and a few short films from WW2 on the "loose lips sink ships" theme that are cringeworthily ham-fisted in their propaganda (it sure was nice of the Nazis to choose an instantly-recognizable symbol that cartoonists could exploit a million ways by having anything take that shape, from subs in the ocean, to the antlers on a pair of mounted moose heads).

They also had a one hour "spy experience" game where you would play out the process of trying to stop a terrorist threat, but we didn't go for that, in part because they were cagey about what was involved and I thus wasn't sure how physical it would be, and in part because of the cost. But I'm still not sure if maybe we should have gone for it. The gift shop was extensive, but while I wanted to want something there, I just didn't.

After a lovely lunch of authentic Mexican cuisine at Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, we went to the National Archives where we went through the Rotunda looking at lots of interesting original documents from our nation's history, including the big three, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. We also toured their public archives exhibit which includes a smattering of additional historical documents of interest (not just paper but also audio and video) mixed through a selection of explanations of the purpose of the National Archive, and its challenges. Particularly interesting was a section about the challenges before them in the Digital Age, not just because of a huge display made of a jumble of antiquated computer equipment (motherboards of ancient computers, 8¼" floppy disks, laserdiscs, and more), but also for the very interesting questions of how they can keep up with a mountain of digital data that changes second-by-second and is hard to authenticate -- though they didn't really offer a lot of answers yet, but the depth of the question is fascinating on its own!

So many people spent so much of their time at the big documents taking pictures of them, and I just don't see why. Okay, I can sense the "hey, this piece of paper is the same one John Adams touched" thrill, and how it's different to be standing in front of it looking right at it than to see a picture of it, but then taking a picture of that moment doesn't give you anything that all the (far better) pictures of it you've already seen (or could download online) didn't already give you. All it does is slow things down for everyone else. Not so bad now when the lines are very short, though it must suck when the lines are so long they have to use those velvet ropes. Just look at it with your eyes, and when you get home, look at a picture online, it'll be far better than yours anyway.

1 comment:

Tyler said...

So many people spent so much of their time at the big documents taking pictures of them, and I just don't see why.

Clearly they're using their souvenir X-ray spy cameras from the espionage museum to check for maps on the back of the Declaration of Independence and constitution.