Museums of the future…unleash your inner James Bond

Throughout the last few years, there’s been a major trend in the museum industry with the expansion of spy museums! As a big fan of the occasional James Bond film, I was dying to visit the new Spyscape museum that opened in NYC in 2018.  Unsurprisingly, the tickets were extremely hard to come by, even at the above average entrance fee of almost $40 per adult.  I became fascinated with the unique experience that this museum offered, and upon further research, it’s evident that other spy museums have grown in popularity across other major cities as well.  Museum goers boast about the interactive & individualized experience that these spy museums afford through their revolutionary use of digital technology.  Some of these major advancements in digital elements are also pushing for further transformation across the wider museum industry. Here’s what you can expect from a visit to a spy museum!

First off, from the moment you enter, you can expect a completely customized experience using RFID technology.  Upon arrival, the visitor is given a badge, wristband or some other ID tag, that they will carry with them throughout their visit.  This badge will provide the visitor with a completely customized experience by tracking their movement throughout the museum.  For example, at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, users can select “Mission Impossible” or “Undercover Mission” experiences, which involves the selection of a specific spy identity that will dictate their experiences for the rest of their visit.  Using this RFID technology, the user can scan their badge or wristband throughout the museum to access photos and videos related to their spy identity.

The Spyscape museum in NYC takes these spy identities even further, by providing various interactive spy related assessments throughout the visitor’s journey in the museum.  One assessment includes encryption exercises at a large illuminated table, where users must both decipher & respond to a code.  Another assessment on surveillance requires visitors to wear a headset and answer questions about activities and environment shown on a screen.  One such activity even allows users to test out facial recognition software and lie detector testing.  After each assessment, he visitor’s performance is scored, and the data is recorded on their badge. Check out the video below to see some of the assessments in action at Spyscape!

The scoring of each assessment is used in Spyscape’s algorithm that profiles visitors into a specific spy role type.  Upon arriving at the Spyscape museum, the visitor will begin by taking a short personality test.  Then, as they move through the museum, they use their wristband to track their activity and performance on the various assessments noted above.  Using these various elements as inputs, Spyscape’s proprietary algorithm uses compares each individual against millions of others, and scores each visitor across a number of profile attributes. These attributes include elements like: level of risk tolerance, ability to handle stress, inquisitiveness, mental horsepower, etc.  At the end of your visit to the museum, the algorithm will provide you with a one of ten spy profiles (see profile types in the image to the right). Additionally, as more visitors complete the assessment at Spyscape, the algorithm is updated to ensure accuracy in profile outcomes.

All in all, the technological advancements in spy museums around the world are quite cool, but the International Spy Museum in Washington DC takes the mental assessment one step further.  They’ve added an element of debate and more thought-provoking engagement to their museum experience.  Throughout the visit, museum goers not only interact with digital tools, but they also face provocative questions on controversial political topics.  One question, for example, asks visitors their opinion of torture, and even more specifically, whether or not they support the use of torture for suspected terrorists.  Furthermore, many spy museum encourage visitors to be more skeptical of their own digital security, warning about the ‘free wifi at your local coffee shop’, for example. These provocative questions encourage visitors to think beyond the digital technology, which I find to be another unique aspect of a visit to the spy museum.

With such a unique experience, it’s no secret why spy museums have become so popular in recent years; however there are a few other interesting components to the experience worth noting.

The first is of course the question of data privacy.  With every visitor, quite a lot of data is collected and stored within the Spyscape’s system and algorithm.  This data can be highly sensitive, it can highlight key personality traits and I suspect it can also highlight a linkage to those that your visiting the museum with.  The Spyscape museum assures that they do not sell any data produced from your visit to the spy museum, but they do reserve the right to use aggregated and anonymized data to continuously improve the museum challenges.  Seems reasonable, but what if there was a data breach!

The second element somewhat interesting element of these museums, is the level of historical detail provided surrounding intelligence failures.  I mentioned above the provocative questioning to museum goers at The International Spy Museum.  Throughout their exhibits, they also highlight some of the biggest fails in America’s history of spying.  For example, one room is devoted to Snowden’s part in leaking several documents to journalists.  Additionally, another exhibit room includes failures related to the containment weapons of mass disruption in Iraq.  Lastly, this museum also celebrates the wins – including one exhibit which brings to life the work of CIA intelligence analysts in their search for bin Laden after the attacks of 9/11.  The International Spy Museum is committed to showing both positive and negative aspects of the not-so-secret spy world.

Overall, the interactive and hands on experience that spy museums provide is super unique, thanks to the power of digital technology.  I’m dying to visit these museums the next time I’m in NYC or DC.  Has anyone ever had the chance to experience these first hand?  If so, are they as cool in person as I’ve described above?

8 comments

  1. I’ve never attended either of the spy museums but after reading your blog I am definitely interesting in checking one out. When I think of my experiences as a child at science museums, they were fun but not very high tech. Much of the learning came from stationary exhibits that did not provide much feedback. The tech involved in the spy museums that you described seems very much like a step up from those types of exhibits. I will be interested to see if other locations beyond the spy museums take a more high tech approach towards their offerings.

  2. sayoyamusa · ·

    Very interesting post! I’ve never heard of these spy museums, but your blog has made me want to visit! All the technologies look so cool and totally different from the conventional quiet museums. In my opinion, museums used to be regarded as so educational that often boring or appealing only to specific visitors, but I need to change my perspective. These interactive features are brilliant idea to broaden the customer base and increase the number of visitors because people would want to enjoy the experience with families/friends. At least for me, the Spyscape will be the place I want to visit with my friends whereas the traditional art museum (say MFA) is the place I prefer visiting alone so that I can immerse myself. Either way, it’s a good move that lots of museums around the world have been renewing their contents with high technologies and I can’t wait to visit all the fantastic museums after the COVID19 is over!

  3. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Wow, this definitely sparked my interest in visiting a spy museum. I will no doubt have to check out the SpyScape in NYC when I am back home on Long Island for the summer. Something that surprised me was the museum’s use of wearables, this is one setting that wouldn’t be the first that comes to mind when thinking of wearable applications. I think that these museums also offer a great opportunity to bring awareness on digital security to the public on digital security. I would be curious to know how the museum might use some of the data they collect through wearables or survey questions from their visitors. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I haven’t heard of these before. They will definitely be on my list for the next visit!

  5. shaneriley88 · ·

    Wow! Very interesting topic, well done. I’ve had a chance to visit the International Spy Museum in D.C. twice. The curators do a fairly good job focusing on various international clandestine organizations all while taking visitors through a bespoke tradecraft adventure of sorts. My first experience at the museum was unlike any other I’d had before. I’ve always enjoyed being a more passive museum goer. I typically don’t opt for the headset or tour options as I would rather introvert a bit and take things in on my own. I really enjoyed the interactive features the DC museum used for portions of the exhibits. My personal favorites where on what their website calls the Uncertain World. I really nerded out here. They did a great job touching on fan favorite topics like the Stasi and even some newer indo-pacific intelligence concerns. You’ll love it! They also have a Aston Martin DB3 parked out front – dream car.

  6. williammooremba · ·

    Like Shane I have also been to the International Spy Museum in D.C. a few times. One of my personal favorite experiences there I don’t think they do anymore. It took a bit of Googling to refresh my memory, but they had an escape room like experience called operation spy. It was a bit different in that we had a designated guide who drove us through this experience as we role played being spies. One of my favorite challenges was that we had to go into a room and look for clues. However, after we moved onto a different room, we got a feedback score on how much we had moved items in the room after we left. I was in D.C. as part of a boy scout trip, so I got to do the room with my scout troop which added to the experience. Although based on our results, a group largely consisting of middle and high school boys is perhaps not the stealthiest or most inclined to go for covert tactics options. While that was a highlight the rest of the museum was also excellent, and I can highly recommend it.
    Here is a review of operation spy I found which had a different opinion but describes the experience in more depth: https://www.escapeauthority.com/review-operation-spy/

  7. Very interesting article! I didn’t know such a museum exists before. I would try it out next time visiting New York too. The interactive museum seems a trend to go. I remember several months ago, a museum built a live version of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, in which all the content in the drawing becomes alive, and customers enter this immersive setting to feel the greatness of his works. The interactive museum would definitely appeal to and attract visitors more compared to traditional museums. Also, this spy museum reminds me of the “Escape room” I had experienced years ago with my friends. It was impressive. We couldn’t figure out a way to “escape” from the locked room at the end, unfortunately.

  8. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    Wow. I did not know this type of museum was a thing. Your description is very well done and I can picture myself in it. I will be adding this to my to do list and hopefully can experience it first hand. Data security is always a concern when sensitive data is being collected..

    On the Vincent van Gogh’s exhibit, I have tickets later this year and can’t wait for the experience!!

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