Washington, D.C. and its surrounding metro area are quite literally seeped in history, and thus it isn’t surprising that there is no shortage of museums for locals and visitors alike to take in. It would be safe to say that it would be impossible to see them all even during an extended trip. However, not every museum is actually open to the public, which might seem strange to some. But the purpose of those facilities is as much to educate those in government service as to inform the public.
5 Intelligence Community Museums
Such is certainly the case with the branches of the intelligence community (IC). Though it would be safe to describe these five museums as “must-see,” a couple are technically “can’t see” – at least not in person.
1. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Museum
Topping the list of intelligence-related museums is one that is “not open to the public,” namely the CIA Museum, which chronicles the history of the hidden world of American intelligence. Administered by the Center for the Study of Intelligence, and established in June 2002, the CIA Museum is the national archive for the collection, preservation, documentation, and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture, and history.
The current collection reportedly consists of some 3,500 items that have been declassified ranging from a robotic bug as small as an actual insect to just one of the nine A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance aircraft still in existence. Other artifacts include spy gadgets, specialized weaponry, and espionage memorabilia that spans the agency’s World War II origins through today. The CIA Museum has partnerships with Presidential Libraries and other major museums and institutions to develop public exhibitions dedicated to understanding the craft of intelligence and its role in the broader American experience.
While it isn’t open to the public, much of its collection can be viewed online at the CIA Museum Website.
2. The National Cryptologic Museum (NCM)
Opened to the public on December 16, 1993, this facility hosts some 50,000 visitors annually. What is surprising about the National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) is that it is actually located in the former Colony Seven Motel, just two blocks from the NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. The motel was purchased to create a buffer zone between the high-security main buildings of the NSA and an adjacent highway. Just prior to the pandemic, the NCM was closed for major renovations and now is scheduled to reopen on Saturday, October 8.
The NCM collection includes thousands of artifacts, with some dating back to before the American Revolution. Within the museum are numerous working World War II German Enigma machines, as well as numerous exhibits dedicated to the people who contributed to cryptography in the United States. The museum also offers tours for members of the public, both scheduled and walk-in, that describe cryptology’s impact on history and jobs in the field. It also features the NSA Hall of Honor, which is a memorial honoring individuals with distinguished service to American cryptology.
3. FBI Experience
Currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FBI Experience will reportedly reopen sometime later this year. It was designed to provide self-guided tours at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. When open to the public, it features interactive multimedia exhibits, content, and artifacts to illustrate the importance of the Bureau’s work to protect the nation. Visitor service reps are stationed throughout to answer questions – and all are FBI or former FBI agents or employees. Artifacts include the desk of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and numerous items from well-known cases.
A typical tour takes around 90 minutes. However, even in “normal times” due to the fact that the tour is in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, visitors must schedule their tour no later than four weeks in advance of the desired date. This includes contacting one’s congressional representative office to request a tour. In addition, all visitors must be U.S. citizens or valid green card holders.
4. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Museum
Among the newest of the IC’s museums located around metro D.C. is the DIA Museum, which was completed in 2020. It was initiated in 2016 under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, and in close collaboration with Smithsonian Exhibits and Emmy Award-winning Interface Media Group, it is located at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Southeast, Washington, D.C.
The museum now exceeds 10,000 square feet, featuring 44 exhibits, dozens of artifacts, eight interactive displays, six missiles, and numerous videos that highlight six decades of DIA history, including its 87 chartered missions, and honor its workforce. Visitors can learn of the history of DIA’s global presence, and the Agency’s vital role in supporting national security. Artifacts include such items as a briefing book to President John F. Kennedy, to Taliban hard drives and Osama Bin Laden’s notebook and will.
Unfortunately, the DIA Museum is not open to the general public, but one may visit if escorted by a DIA employee.
5. International Spy Museum
Technically not an actual museum of the United States intelligence community, the International Spy Museum is far more “tourist-friendly,” and still maintains the feeling of being someplace “Top Secret.” Located not far from the Washington Mall, the independent non-profit museum chronicles the history of tradecraft, history, and the contemporary role of espionage.
Visitors receive a “briefing” and “cover identity” when entering the museum, and head through three floors of galleries that include the largest collection of international espionage artifacts on public display in the world, tracing the complete history of spies from the ancient world to the modern day. These include actual tools used in spycraft as well as significant pieces from pop culture. Items include a replica of the Bushnell submarine “Turtle,” a Revolutionary War submarine that was developed to sink British warships in New York Harbor, to the Aston Martin DB4 car used in the James Bond film Goldfinger, as well as the actual ice pick axe that was used to kill exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In addition to the static displays, visitors can take in interactive exhibits of spy tales through the ages, and at the end receive a debriefing to their “undercover mission” at the museum.
The museum is open daily.