Going Postal on the Spy Who Loved Me

I almost forgot to mention that I had a little time to do some sightseeing while on my visit to DC. In particular, I spent time at two museums that were new to me (and, I think, are realtively new to DC). The first, the National Postal Museum, is a part of the Smithsonian and a fairly standard historical account of the men and women who brave sleet, snow, and such to deliver catalogs and bills directly to your doorstep. The second, The International Spy Museum, offers a high-gloss history of spying, particulalry within the US (other than the fact taht we spy on other countries, the “International” part is a bit overstated). By days end, between the two museums, I began to feel a bit like a lost character from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and while I enjoyed both museums to some extent, the latter museum irritated me, I think, because it seemed a bit shallow and muddled, romanticizing spying at a time when “intelligence failures” are a major topic just a few blocks down the road.

I probably would have skipped the Postal Museum, but because my grandmother worked in a post office, my mom was curious to see it. The museum features several “interactive” features, including an opportunity to “profile” yourself to show how direct mail “services” know what advertisements to send you (mine didn’t really work, but that may have been my fault). In general, I enjoyed some of the museum’s attempts to relate the history of the postal service, including the role of the post in allowing the colonies to disseminate information quickly during the Revolutionary War. But looking back on the experience, I’m intrigued by the musealization of the postal service, with the exhibit implying that the post office is something that needs to be “remembered,” especially in the age of email and other forms of digital communication.

Like the Postal Museum, The International Spy Museum, severely overpriced at $14 a person, also emphasized interactivity, almost to an excessive degree, turning the museum into something closer to an amusement park, with little reflection on the logic of spying (though the museum is clearly aware of the “allure” of spying). The museum opens by asking you to choose a “secret” identity from a list of about twelve possibilities (I chose “Colin,” an 18-yr old art student from Great Britain–very believable). Later, you’re given a chance to test your memory to see how well you remembered your secret identity. Other sections illustrated the tools of the trade, the history of spying (profiling famous spies such as the Rosenbergs), and the glamorization of spying in Hollywood films. I think the museum might have been more interesting if there had been a clearer narrative about the role of espionage in national conflict or if it had been more willing to be critical of some of the CIA practices during the Cold War (it’s very clear from the museum that any criticism of our intelligence efforts in Iraq would have been far too much to ask).

8 Comments »

  1. Amber Said,

    May 31, 2005 @ 2:04 am

    Dude. I spent like 5 hours in the spy museum. Good stuff. I think I could probably bug a room now, if I had to.

  2. Caleb Said,

    May 31, 2005 @ 8:05 am

    Lately when I go to the American History museum at the Smithsonian, I’m always worried that corporate sponsorship (chiefly from the History Channel) is adversely affecting the educational quality of the exhibits. But after hearing your account of the Spy Museum as an amusement park, I’m relieved that the Smithsonian hasn’t gone that far yet.

  3. Chuck Said,

    May 31, 2005 @ 11:38 am

    Amber, my review was probably a little harsh. I spent three hours or more there and generally enjoyed the experience, and you’re right that the museum covers the nuts and bolts stuff pretty well. But I thought the museum could reproduce the effects of spying a little more effectively.

    Caleb, I wonder about the effects of corporate sponsorship, too. I’d imagine that the Smithsonian is still less reliant on corporate sponsorship than most institutions, but I think that “eductaional” question is what framed my reading of the Spy Museum.

  4. Matt K. Said,

    May 31, 2005 @ 2:25 pm

    We were similarly underwhelmed by the International Spy Museum. The place you really want to check out is the National Cryptologic Museum, on the grounds of the NSA campus in Fort Meade.

  5. Chuck Said,

    May 31, 2005 @ 3:28 pm

    Oooh, that does sound cool, Matt. I’ll put it high on my summer museum list.

  6. Chuck Said,

    July 19, 2005 @ 3:33 pm

    Much delayed, but here’s the link to the National Cryptograhic Museum Matt mentioned a few weeks ago.

  7. DC Cab Rider Said,

    August 15, 2007 @ 4:05 pm

    You’re right on about the Spy “Museum” which is not a museum in any real sense. A couple of years ago I went with my aunt to the postal museum and was really impressed with an exhibit that featured items from the post office at the World Trade Center complex. And the story of the woman who was the mail lady for the top floors of one of the towers. That had more impact in just that little exhibit than the whole Spy “Museum” did.

  8. Chuck Said,

    August 15, 2007 @ 4:18 pm

    The WTC exhibit sounds really interesting. BTW, like you, I lived in DC w/o a car, in my case for about a year. I *really* miss the freedom of getting around the city via subway, bus, foot, and the occasional taxi. Reading your blog made me incredibly nostalgic for my car-free existence there.

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