Saturday, February 26, 2011

I Spy

by Drew Martin

In the song Paper Planes, M.I.A. sings, "Yeah, I've got more records than the K.G.B." It's a witty line, which plays with the extroversion of singers and the secrecy of spies. But then again, for such a covert profession, spying is very high profile in American culture. It has been popularized by comics, books and movies...not to mention all the peripheral toys and merchandise.

James Bond, especially his more sophisticated/dapper older incarnations, is the ultimate secret agent. The real experience is probably closer to what is portrayed in A Beautiful Mind about the Nobel Prize winner - John Nash's schizophrenic experience, that of delusion and losing oneself in a world where the lines of truth and reality are blurred by distortions of trust. Although his problems were medical and his espionage simply a farce, the psychological burden of real-life spying must be overwhelming.

This past President's Day weekend, my family drove down to Washington D.C., the city with the most spies in the world. Despite all that the amazing Smithsonian museums had to offer, my kids were most excited about the privately run (for-profit) International Spy Museum. It is a couple blocks from the Mall but not entombed in a grandiose building.

What the Spy museum has going for it is its engaging displays and interactivity. From the start, each visitor chooses a "cover" and memorizes details of a mission, which he or she is later grilled on by a computer. If you get one of the details wrong, the "suspicion meter" jumps. I was Dimitri Ivanov, a 48 year old "fisherman" from Kirov, Russia and the computer was none-the-wiser.

The Spy museum is dense with images and artifacts in intimate spaces. This is quite a departure from the Smithsonian museums, which were built to impress and dominate space. That model now seems old fashioned. The newer National Museum of the American Indian, which follows suit, is a handsome structure but is too much building and the exhibits seem lost to the architecture. The National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world, seems to have become more of a grand lobby for its IMAX theatre, where most of the visitors were gathered when we walked by. One could argue that today's viewer needs to be spoon fed but I think this is a much greater cultural shift, away from the do not touch object to the hands-on experience.

That being said, the objects at the Spy museum are fantastic. If the theme of espionage is not your thing, the art viewer can take on this space as a pure Dada or Surrealist experience. Magritte, Dali and the master of the common object, Duchamp, would be thrilled by many of the artifacts, which include the pigeon surveillance camera, a tree stump listening device, an umbrella gun, a coat buttonhole camera, the lipstick pistol, escape boots (pilot boots, which resembled civilian dress shoes) and, my favorite, explosive coal; a hollow shell, resembling coal, packed with explosives.

It was used by the OSS. (the American Office of Strategic Services) during WWII to find its way into locomotive furnaces and factory boilers. The most interesting part is that it came with a camouflage kit so the operative could paint the device to match the local coal color.