“This looked a lot easier in Mission Impossible,” I thought, as I crawled awkwardly through a mock heating duct at the Pacific Science Center‘s new exhibit, SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. I bungled the Laser Maze, too, failing to navigate a laser field without tripping an alarm.
So I’m not spy material—no matter. I had a blast exploring the exhibit, which features real gadgets and artifacts, some only recently declassified, from leading national intelligence agencies and the private collection of H. Keith Melton, a Florida-based author, historian and expert on spy technology.
SPY examines how espionage has shaped the world—from WWII through the Cold War to present day—and unveils some of the technical wizardry that enabled agents in their missions. Timelines and photos put things in historical context, illuminating the relationships between people and between nations.
Along the way, I detected the cameras hidden in lamps and books in a faux living room scene and used a voice modifier to mask my identity.
At the heart of the exhibit, though, are the old school—and just plain cool—gadgets culled from Melton’s trove of 10,000+ devices, books and papers of eminent spies. In the 1960s, after reading a book by the master gadget maker for the OSS (forerunner to the CIA), Melton became fascinated with the role of devices in supporting clandestine operations, and devoted much time and resources to amassing his collection.
“The purpose of espionage isn’t gadgets,” he said. “Gadgets simply connect the people with the secrets to the people who can analyze them.”
I learned just how imaginative technicians got in devising ways to pass secrets, including stashing info in fake bricks, rocks—even stuffed rats—for urban “dead drops.”
An East German agent concealed microfilms in this hollow tooth (above).
This slim, Swiss-built precision tape recorder (above) was favored by MI6 for covert recordings.
Recording devices were hidden in shoe heels (above), too.
And in the 1970s, the CIA utilized pigeons armed with tiny cameras (above) to shoot stealth photos.
SPY treads into darker territory, as well, with displays of the ice axe (still bearing a blood stain) used to kill Leon Trotsky in 1940 and a poison-tipped umbrella wielded to murder a Bulgarian defector in 1978.
As revelations about NSA spying have us pondering the give and take between privacy and security, this exhibit offers scintillating ideas on the role of espionage, which Melton views as “an essential component of diplomacy.”
And, who knows, what’s old may soon be new again. Today, these classic gadgets could all be replaced with an iPhone. But Melton predicts the spy of the future will employ a mix of technologies. “It’s only a matter of time until the counterintelligence services focus all of their spy-catching efforts exclusively on smartphones and the Internet,” said Melton. “As soon as that happens, a clever intelligence service will resurrect the past tools of the trade. It is much harder to be vigilant in both the digital world and analog worlds.”
SPY: The Secret World of Espionage is on view at the Pacific Science Center through September 1. It is a timed-entry exhibit, so visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance. In conjunction, the center is also screening a new IMAX 3D film, D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944, narrated by Tom Brokaw. Visit pacificsciencecenter.org or call 206.443.2001.
Photos by Jim Catechi.