Drop by the Spy Museum on a typical summer afternoon, and you'll find a
ticket line that snakes for more than two blocks along F Street. Excited tourists
wait for a peek inside the flickering world of seductive Mata Hari, the accused
French spy; or to gawk at a copy of James Bond's silver-painted Aston Martin
from the movie Goldfinger; or for a glimpse of the once-notorious Soviet KGB
spy Oleg Danilovich Kalugin (now retired, he's on the museum's advisory
board of directors and frequently lunches at the museum).
Ask the affable and easygoing museum builder to talk about his illustrious roles--as anticensorship hero, rock n' roll impresario, spy-meister extraordinaire--and he'll tell you that all three experiences were joined by the one great passion that has dominated his life: a burning love for history.
"I was raised in a family that loved to travel around to museums," says the Cleveland native. "We spent huge amounts of time visiting battlefields, famous houses, Williamsburg, you name it. And always what I liked most about these places were the stories, the fascinating details that so often surround historical events.
"I learned a long time ago--back when I was working as an arts curator at the Smithsonian in the 1970s--that the most effective way to get history across to people is to tell them exciting stories. But doing that in a museum setting requires a special kind of creativity. You have to tell the story quickly and vividly, with as much drama as you can muster."
He pauses for a moment, reflecting, while one hand wanders toward Nipper's gleaming head. "I do love the creativity involved in museum exhibitions," he says with a gentle pat, "and the Spy Museum is a good example of that. You know, [spy author] John le Carré can be John le Carré because he's got 500 pages in which to tell his story.
"But you don't have that in a museum. In most cases, you've got a 50-word label, and that's it. And so it becomes a terrific challenge, finding a way to condense the story, to compress the narrative into a single, vivid image that sticks in the mind."
At the International Spy Museum, this "narrative compression" works in a hundred different ways to create an aura of mystery, danger, and intrigue. Against a backdrop of lurid electric posters and shadowy photographs--"All Is Not What It Seems!"--museum-goers find themselves face-to-face with such show-stoppers as the Kiss of Death (a one-bullet gun, Soviet-make, hidden inside a tube of lipstick); the Buttonhole Camera (another KGB invention, this tiny F21 took remarkably clear clandestine photos from inside an agent's coat); and the Shoe Transmitter (a cunning radio broadcasting system with removable shoe-heels used by Soviet spies at the height of the Cold War).
How did Barrie & Co. figure out the right mix of history and entertainment, while building a $40-million themed museum that would be historically accurate, even as it captured the authentic chills and thrills of the espionage world?
"One of the first things we did was to put a bunch of actual spies together
in a room," he says with another laugh. "We rounded up several former
and current intelligence officers and put them in a room with a few writers and
One of Barrie's early "intelligence finds" was veteran CIA clandestine officer Peter Earnest, a buttoned-down career operative on the "dark" (or intelligence-gathering) side of agency operations. Having served as liaison officer to the U.S. Senate for several years, the exquisitely tailored and smooth-mannered Earnest already understood how to "explain the CIA" to the public. Earnest was the perfect candidate for the role of Spy Museum CEO, and today directs daily operations there.
"I have to give Dennis Barrie enormous credit," he says. "What he brought to the table was the creative talent that allowed the intelligence community to tell its story to the public through words and images. I think everybody in Washington understands that Dennis has a great gift for finding the imagery and the drama required to get history across to people."
Amazingly enough, say Barrie and Earnest, their recruiting of Cold War-era intelligence operatives from both sides of the former Iron Curtain didn't seem to trigger any ideological conflict. To the contrary, notes Barrie, lengthy brainstorming sessions began to produce waves of emotion-laden nostalgia, as the now-retired operatives traded thrilling memories.
"After they warmed up to each other, there was a great deal of sharing of ideas and goals. It was like a reunion, you know? After a while, we had all these spies sitting around, fondly recalling key moments from the Cold War."
Barrie says he's also struck by the fact that some of the museum's more frequent visitors have come from Washington's intelligence community. "I've quantified this," he points out, "because we give a $1 discount to members of the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, and that allows us to keep careful record of their attendance.
"The experts in the intelligence world love our museum," he adds with a wry chuckle. "They come through in droves, and that is very gratifying."
According to Barrie, the high spy-attendance rate at the museum also means that in many cases, ordinary tourists who brush up against other ordinary-looking "tourists" inside the complex are actually brushing up against real spies.