For Fans of Spies, a Place to Come In From the Cold

Posted March 29, 2018 6:31 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “Hello Bill Hamilton.” The silver kiosk displayed its welcome when I swiped the black wristband that was my admission ticket.

The days of slipping through the back of a tailor’s shop are long gone.

I was standing before the first of 12 information-gathering sentinels at Spyscape, a $50 million, 60,000-square-foot spying and espionage museum, which opened recently in midtown Manhattan.

With leading questions and embarrassing exercises, the kiosks were assessing me — personality traits, risk tolerance and IQ — to construct a profile of the kind of spy I might best be.

Spyscape is the newest unhidden headquarters of our cultural fascination with the art of deception, two levels inside a nondescript glass-box building on Eighth Avenue at 55th Street. Its dark, labyrinthine interior landscape was designed by David Adjaye, architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

The kiosk would like me to agree or disagree with a few statements.

“I’ll say anything to get what I want,” it declared in a light tone of conspiracy. I gave that idea a dissembling 3 on a scale of 1-5, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

“I’m willing to be unethical if I believe it will help me succeed.” I squashed that with a 1. “I keep others at a distance.” Well, now that you mention it: 4.

“This is like dating,” I said to Aaron Moody, a visitor services associate.

In fact, espionage may be bigger than courtship on social media right now, with Facebook at the center of a growing controversy over the use of personal data during elections, and the park-bench poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter drawing international censure. Seismic private-information hacks reveal themselves with regularity, in government and business. We accept drone-patrolled, surveillance-prying public space. Cyberwarfare has come of age, and the Cold War is back.

“Scary biscuits,” as the English say.

“I thought that spy stories were really a thing of the ‘70s,” Adjaye said in an interview. “And here we are at this time, that actually spying is back.”

Asked how confident he was in the security of his own personal information, on a scale of 1-10 — with 10 being most secure — Adjaye said, “Three.”

What is it about the shadows of deception that excites our participation and not our fear? The International Spy Museum in Washington, with its impressive collection of spy artifacts, will be moving to a greatly expanded facility next year. A new National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations, under development in Ashburn, Virginia, is expected to open in 2020.

Conceived as an entertainment attraction, Spyscape’s $39 experience ($32 for children ages 3 to 12 — bring them; you’ll need them) is a cultural chimera: part museum, part ride. It was created by Archimedia, a London-based private investment group that has been a developer in resorts, restaurants, and spy-themed film productions like the television adaptation of John le Carré's “The Night Manager.”

Spyscape’s immersive experience begins in the outsize elevator, which makes a slow three-minute ascent. The Briefing Lift, as it’s called, delivers the visitor into Spyscape’s realm with a three-walled video created by Territory Studio in London, which worked on “Blade Runner 2049.”

The doors open; you have arrived at the 25-foot-high “city within a city,” as Adjaye calls the main floor: seven galleries presenting themes like encryption and special ops. In addition to a curated collection of objects, there are 141 live screens, 317 speakers, 113 live cameras and 32 projectors telling Spyscape’s stories. There are also games called “challenges” and the kiosks.

The stories are all real-life — no fictional spies like James Bond. The “Encryption” gallery tells the story of Alan Turing and Joan Clarke, the cryptanalysts of World War II, who cracked the German Enigma code; Virginia Hall in “Special Ops,” the woman with one leg who operated in occupied France and was called “the scourge of the Gestapo”; Edward Snowden in “Surveillance.” There is an actual Enigma machine, and a replica you can code on. “Encryption” closes with a present-day warning.

“The Enigma story shows no code is 100 percent foolproof.” And, “WikiLeaks revealed that the CIA can’t break WhatsApp — yet. Every intelligence service is on the case trying to.”

Scary biscuits. I am inside a black booth, facing a black-glass monitor. There is a heartbeat playing. Or are my ears pounding? Nick Ryan, a sound artist whose clients have included Tate Britain in London, designed Spyscape’s aural landscape, which is as originally and meticulously rendered as Adjaye’s architecture.

“Hello Bill Hamilton. Welcome to Deception.”

I am being tested for how well I lie and how well I detect lies. I stare at a grid on the monitor, which registers my face, and begins a live feed of me at the bottom. I put my fingertip on a red sensor, which takes my pulse.

“Have you ever been to space? What did you like about it?”

“Yes. It wasn’t New York,” I lie. The screen replays my face. My eyes are blinking like signal lamps.

“People blink more when lying,” the booth says empathetically. It knows I know I’ve failed.

Spyscape’s experience is mildly paranoiac, but it is never deadly dark. Its affirmative message — on T-shirts and tote bags — is “Question Everything.” Be your own information gatherer. Who would argue with that? There are no rendition programs or extraditions here. (Shelby Prichard, Spyscape’s chief of staff, who previously worked for the 9/11 Museum, said that the information gathered here was not shared externally or sold.)

In a timely way, Spyscape shows us what we know, but choose to ignore: that espionage and spying are not only the stuff of extraordinary tales or specialists’ tools. They are the “enemies among us” — the CCTVs, the closed-circuit tracking systems, the browser cookies. There is a double agent in every pocket. “Mobile phones are the most powerful spy devices of all,” the Briefing Lift explains. Hakeen Betts, the retail associate who sold me John le Carré's “The Pigeon Tunnel” in Spyscape’s exhaustive bookshop, told me that on a visit, his 10-year-old son was evaluated and told he was a “spymaster,” based on his performance with the interactivities.

All 10-year-olds are spymasters now. At the Encryption challenge, large horizontal touch screens, which look like naval charting tables, test your ability to grasp ciphers quickly. (It reminded me of dealing with an iOS update). A girl wearing a sparkling ballet skirt and sequined cat’s ears explained ciphers to her befuddled father: “Here’s how you do it.”

Swipe. “Hello Bill Hamilton.”

I am at the door of a laser tunnel. I step through. The tunnel is studded with unlighted buttons. I hit the red start button. “Welcome to Special Ops. Avoid the lasers. Good luck.”

The buttons turn bright white. Smoke hisses in. Loud music, with a “There he is — grab him!” mania to it. The tunnel is now a spider’s web of laser beams. I have 90 seconds to punch as many buttons as I can, deactivating them, without hitting a laser beam, which deducts 5 seconds from the running clock. I break into a sweat so hard I can hear it. And that’s the last thing I remember.

Two men rolled out laughing from other tunnels. Competing in side-by-side chambers, they scored a 165 and a 140. I am the spy who came in from the cold, really slowly. 95.

Spyscape’s last chamber is Debrief. On the black-screened walls, streams of information glow. Visitors are given their analyses and told what spy roles they might play.

My screen says some conciliatory things, a kind of “you were second on the list, really” that I recognize from human resources officers.

“You take risks after careful consideration.” Thank you. “You are mathematical.” Uh, OK. It’s never seen my SATs. “You are very precise in your work.” Nice — tell my editor.

“Bill Hamilton, you are a cryptologist.”

In three tries, over three visits, I am repeatedly a cryptologist, passed over for “intelligence operative,” “spycatcher” and other action roles I coveted. No rooftop motorcycle chases, perfect cocktails or brand placement. A desk job. If I couldn’t crack my own code, how good could I be?

Michael Amendola, an assistant theater producer I met in the gift shop, told me Spyscape had decided he was a “hacker” — a risk-taker. He praised the museum’s immersive nature.

“I loved the code breaking, I loved the laser exhibition,” Amendola said, adding that he learned a great deal, too. He compared Spyscape to a recent visit to the Museum of Sex on lower Fifth Avenue. “It’s an interesting concept,” Amendola said of that museum, “but I thought it felt a little underwhelming.”

If you can beat sex, you’re in like Flint.

Additional Information:


928 Eighth Ave.

212-549-1941; spyscape.com