It started with a microphone hidden in a pen. Then, we had to crack a code while the clock ticked down to zero. We had to dodge laser beams to avoid detection, determine which interviewee was lying to us, and scan through dozens of monitors showing feeds of dozens of cameras to find the man we were looking for. And then we went to dinner.
My son stayed with me for a week in New York recently, and we had a great time. A slice of pizza, five miles along the Hudson, attending A Bronx Tale with Chazz actually in the cast that night, it was a wonderful trip. But by far, one of the highlights was a visit to the new SPYSCAPE, a museum and interactive exhibit of the world of espionage. As soon as we arrived, the sleek, high-tech feel told us immediately this was no stuffy museum. We had to register at one of the digital kiosks sprinkled throughout the place. We would later use those kiosks to play spy-themed games and track our progress through the exhibits.
Once our turn to enter arrived, we were ushered into a small room with a wraparound screen. A booming voice and short video gave us instructions on our mission, should we choose to accept it, of course. And surprise, surprise: when the video was over and the door opened, we were on a different level. The “room” was also an elevator.
What followed was a self-guided tour of different exhibits, each one highlighting certain elements of espionage and spycraft. Each section had a featured activity that was related to that topic as well. And that’s where the real fun was.
The first was code-breaking. There was a lot of interesting information about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine from World War II, but my son enjoyed more the table where we had to crack a code based on real scenarios from World War I. If we didn’t get it right, our valuable double agent from the French Resistance wouldn’t be able to convey her vital information.
Then, on to the Deception Detection exhibit. We learned about body language, common signs of deception, and polygraph machines. We read about Robert Hanssen, the notorious spy inside the FBI, and how he lived a lie for years. The activity here was entering a small booth and watching videos of people answering questions, and voting with red and green buttons how truthful we thought they were.
Then, we learned about infiltration and perimeter security. The activity here was one of the most immersive. We had to walk through a long, tunnel-like room. Our mission was to press as many of the buttons along the wall that we could in one minute. But there were lasers spider-webbing the entire corridor. Touch just one, and the mission was over!
Finally, we learned about surveillance. For this activity, we entered a large room with dozens of video monitors all around us. In the center of the room, we had to put on a headset and hear instructions like, “Find a man in a white shirt with a backpack.” Or, “What color coat is the man wearing on Monitor 27?” As in the other activities, the clock was ticking the seconds away.
Part of my enjoyment was comparing the activities to my real-world experience with some of these topics. I’ve never worked for our government in an espionage capacity, but in my past role as a private investigator and current role as an international security consultant, I deal with things like video surveillance, deception detection, and perimeter security on a daily basis. I’ve gone undercover before and been on the defense side of corporate espionage many times, and I have to advise some of the traveling executives I support of how foreign agents may try to steal their secrets. And nothing can convince me that the first person I met with at the U.S. Embassy in Manila who was there to welcome me wasn’t actually someone in some intelligence capacity screening me to verify my true purpose for being there.
My experience with codebreaking is admittedly thin, though back when I used to review recorded phone calls, I got pretty good at identifying phone numbers by translating the sound of the touchtones by ear. And I’ve never really had to dodge a laser beam before. But one time while sneaking onto a bad guy’s ranch, I drove my truck through a cow pasture to avoid a rubber hose on his driveway that would’ve sounded a bell. That kind of counts, right?
So from this dubiously learned perspective, I have to say the information presented and the activities offered at Spyscape were relatively authentic. And I can certainly say it was a lot of fun. Our performance on each event was recorded, and at the end a computer tallied our scores and recommended our proper espionage jobs based on our aptitudes. I didn’t get “Field Agent,” but I did get “Agent Handler.” So, no James Bond for me, but I at least can be M. Maybe Dame Judy Dench can play me in a movie one day.
Of course, like any good museum, we exited through the gift shop, where we saw the aforementioned microphone pen, drone cameras, dissolving paper, disappearing ink, and many more gadgets and paraphernalia. We didn’t get anything, but we did start watching The Americans that night, so the effect stayed with us.
We here at Murder-Books tend to write more about detectives than secret agents, but as I said above, some of the topics can still translate. And high stakes, drama, deception, and betrayal can add spice to stories from any genre. You’ll find it all here, and it will be time well spent!
For this blog alone, I’ll alter my signature:
Keller. Ben Keller.