Do you have a multitalented, imaginative young would-be spy or analyst at home? Then I recommend you plan a visit to Spy: The Exhibit, which opened last Friday, July, 17, 2015 at the Rivercenter Mall in downtown San Antonio, Texas.
F.T., my eight-year-old son, loves reading about spies (e.g., Spy from the DK Eyewitness series) so we went to see Spy: The Exhibit on opening day. The amazing objects, from the collection of spy expert and author H. Keith Melton, sparked discussions about history, geography, science, and math. Let me tell you about some of F.T.’s favorites from the exhibit, and give you some tips for planning your family’s visit.
“Creepy.” That’s how F.T. described this artifact, the axe that was used in 1940 to assassinate Leon Trotsky, a Russian Communist revolutionary in exile in Mexico.
F.T. wanted to know who Trotsky was, and why his ex-friends would kill him. “Are my friends going to try to kill me?” he asked. No, I explained, Trotsky made a series of bad choices that put him in danger (e.g., losing a power struggle with Joseph Stalin), and I reassured F.T. that he is safe and can still trust his friends.
“He looks like an astronaut,” said F.T., looking at a pressure suit for pilots of the U2 spy plane, like the one Francis Gary Powers was flying when he was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. F.T. is fascinated with space, and was excited to learn that photographs from high-altitude plans and satellites (the exhibit has one of those, too), are essential to gathering intelligence.
“What’s that typewriter?” asked F.T. More than a typewriter, the Enigma machine enabled the German military during World War II to encipher and decipher secret messages. The Allies’ efforts to decrypt Enigma-encoded messages—as told in movies like The Imitation Game, about genius Alan Turing—helped launch the computer revolution. I admit, I was more excited about the Enigma machine than F.T. was, but I am looking forward to exploring cryptography with him; it’s a great topic for digging into math and the theory of computing.
In addition to the artifacts, there are hands-on activities that kids will enjoy. F.T. crawled through a tunnel, pretending to be planting bugs; adults can watch on a monitor.
F.T. also created a disguise and changed his voice. I tried (and failed) to navigate a dark room criss-crossed with lasers. At the end of the exhibit, a set of quizzes checked how much you learned.
These are just a few artifacts and interactive tools that captured F.T.’s imagination. Spy: The Exhibit has historical depth, reading from the founding of the OSS in the 1940s, through the Cold War, to recent cases such as the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories, which led to the 2010 arrest of ten Russian agents who had been living in the United States.
Melton’s collection includes a rock, retrieved from Wurtsboro, New York, that was used to hide $60,000 for the sleeper agents—a technique called a dead drop. Melton is an advisor to the television show The Americans, inspired by the events of Operation Ghost Stories.
Since F.T. and I were the first visitors to the exhibit, we got a special surprise: We got to meet H. Keith Melton in person, and ask him about his collection and the future of spying.
What Melton wants visitors to Spy: The Exhibit to learn is that spying is not as glamorous as it looks in the movies. “In real life, spying is about collecting information, and getting it to the people who need it to make decisions. Most of the information you need is publicly available, but for that 15 percent that isn’t, because it’s in someone’s vault, or in someone’s mind, you need spying.”
Melton says that China presents the greatest strategic threat to the United States, and recommends studying the Chi Mak case. He notes that peer-t0-peer encryption technologies—the modern descendants of the Enigma machine, now widely available in consumer products—are a huge challenge for law enforcement and counterintelligence.
Here are some tips for planning your visit to Spy: The Exhibit.
Tickets for Adults (13+) are $19.50, and for children (3-12) are $15.50; children 2 and under are free. College, military, and senior (65+) tickets are $17.50. Tickets can be purchased at the exhibit or in advance through Ticketmaster. Call ahead for groups of 20 or more. The exhibit hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The Rivercenter Mall has two parking garages, one on Commerce Street and one on Crockett Street. There are also surface lots around the mall. Spy: The Exhibit is located in the mall near the IMAX theater and Morton’s Steakhouse.
The website offers free teachers’ guides for grades 4-8 and grades 9-12. Audio guides are available to rent for use inside the exhibit. Also, an information-dense exhibit catalog is available for purchase at the gift store.
Who would enjoy it? F.T. loved it, and I think he still would have gotten a lot out of it even when he was 6 or 7. Younger children, age 5 or younger, may find the labels too wordy or may not have enough background in world history to put the artifacts in context. Visitors need to keep their hands off the artifacts and their cases. Strollers are not allowed in the exhibit, but wheelchairs are of course welcome. Sensitive children might be disturbed by objects such as the “creepy” axe that killed Trotsky; use your own judgment about whether your children can handle it.
What makes Spy: The Exhibit such an amazing learning opportunity is that it’s so multidisciplinary, from STEM to linguistics to history and geography. For those kids who have the potential to excel in many different areas, Spy: The Exhibit may fuel their dreams of careers that put all of their talents to use.
Further reading (and viewing):
- “Relics of Espionage Come to Rivercenter Mall”, Don Mathis, Rivard Report, July 5, 2015
- “Poison dart-firing umbrella, tear-gas pen among items showcased in Spy! Exhibit at Rivercenter Mall”, Tyler White, San Antonio Express-News, July 9, 2015
- Books by H. Keith Melton
- International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where Melton is a founding director
- Argo, a 2012 movie about the 1979-80 CIA operation to help a group of American hostages escape Iran by pretending to be a film crew; artifacts from the fake movie are in the exhibit
I hope you and your family enjoy your visit as much as F.T. and I did. Spy: The Exhibit will be in San Antonio for a limited time, but the end date is not yet posted.