Spyscape: Visiting New York City's New Spy Museum
New York City's Spy Museum Enables You to Delve Into the World of Espionage
Spyscape opened in early 2018 in Midtown Manhattan to glowing reviews that highlighted the emphasis on interactive displays and high-tech decor. The seven main exhibit rooms are dazzling, with very clean and sleek lines that are reminiscent of the spy movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
Visitors are given fun tests and perform a range of cool challenges as they wander through the place. At the end of the visit, they are profiled and told which of 10 spy roles they would suit them best. In between the activity stations are displays and exhibits that give an overview of some of the more well-known espionage cases from World War II to the present day.
A Journey Through Spyscape: Testing Your Skills and Knowledge
Upon entering the museum, you are given a digital wristband that you use to check in at each activity.
The first tests your ability to encrypt messages to help a fictional World War II spy escape from France. It's a fun and easy test, though some in our group weren't able to complete it in the time allotted.
Next came the deception challenge, designed to see how well you could lie and whether you could spot the fibs of another person. I'm not sure I should be proud that the museum said I betrayed no hints of lying when I told falsehoods...
The surveillance room tested your ability to quickly pick out specific details when monitoring numerous screens, and the special ops room gauged your agility by requiring you to push buttons while avoiding beams of light.
What Kind of Spy Are You?
There were a few other tests that you took at kiosks. In the end, the results of each of these tests were analyzed and you were told which spy role suited you best. The possibilities include intelligence operative, agent handler, cryptologist, surveillance officer, technical operations officer, hacker, spycatcher, special operations officer, intelligence analyst, and, at the top of the heap, spymaster.
In our group, we had a surveillance officer, a cryptologist, intelligence operatives and agent handlers.
My Analysis Was Spot-On
Interestingly, I was deemed suitable for the agent handling role, which the museum describes as the manager of the agents who are gathering intelligence. Back in the 1990s, I was actually interviewed for a position with the CIA to be . . . an agent handler.
The CIA representative told me that the agency found the attributes of an editor—my main work experience—to be very similar to what they needed for someone who would 'run' agents in a foreign country.
So at least in my case, the museum's analysis was spot on.
My Favorite Exhibits at the Museum
Amid the activities are exhibits that detail specific espionage cases including World War II's Enigma machine, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Hannsen (the FBI agent who became a Soviet spy), and more.
The Enigma Machine
The museum has on display an original enigma machine, which the Nazis used to encode messages during World War II. The exhibit explains the Allies' efforts to crack the codes and gives short profiles of some of the men and women involved in the operation.
Robert Hannsen Exhibit
The exhibit on Hannsen included the story of his capture done in comic-book form shown on a wall. It's well done, but the exhibit just provides the basic details of the entire case, which is a shame because Hannsen is considered to be one of the most damaging spies against the U.S. ever.
Cuban Missile Crisis Exhibit
Another exhibit detailed the spies involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, including the tragic case of Oleg Penkovsky, a Russian colonel who first alerted the United Kingdom of the Soviets' plans to place missiles in Cuba in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, he was betrayed to his bosses by an American who was a Soviet spy. Penkovsky was arrested by the Soviets just before the 13-day standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and was executed in May 1963.
The museum also has exhibits on recent cases of hacking, which may be the most dangerous form of espionage today, and the efforts of the French resistance during World War II. An exhibit about Associated Press journalists who wrote about men in Southeast Asia being forced into slavery in the fishing industry was mildly interesting but seemed out of place.
All the exhibits had a mix of authentic artifacts, replicas and movie memorabilia that could confuse a visitor who doesn't read the fine print on exhibit displays. Some of the displays are missing essential details. For instance, the display of the James Bond Aston Martin doesn't give the title of the movie it was used in, only the year the movie was made.
A Fun But Expensive Place to Visit
Spyscape is a fun way to spend 90 minutes in Manhattan, and I could see that the preteens who were at the museum on the day we were there really loved the place. The activities are entertaining, and it was a kick to see what role the museum's analysis would choose for each visitor.
What are the downsides of the museum?
- It is expensive. $39 for adults, $32 for children. The high ticket prices are probably because the museum was expensive to build (A New York Times report put the cost at $50 million) and is located just south of Central Park in a high-rent part of the city.
- The exhibits aren't very informational. The information that the exhibits provide is skimpy. You get the feeling that the museum just didn't place a high priority on them.
- Wait times can be long. Because we visited in November, there wasn't much wait for any activity. But I could easily imagine that during the summer or heavy tourist periods there would be a lot of waiting around for an activity, which is no fun. (In fact, the museum recommends buying timed tickets at least two weeks in advance).
Overall, Spyscape was a lot of fun and well worth doing for the activities, but I'm not sure it would be worth a return visit.