You may think the closest you’ve ever been to the spy world is watching The Americans on your sofa. But if you’ve ever shopped online or even just walked down a public street, you’ve probably been spied on.
You may as well learn to spy back.
That’s the premise of Spyscape, a new interactive museum in Midtown Manhattan that immerses you in the history and techniques of espionage, all the while training you with activities created by real spies to be more aware of when it’s happening to you.
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“We hope this will be a really empowering experience for people to start to see their world differently, see themselves differently, and understand how the types of skills that spies use can be relevant to their daily lives,” says Shelby Prichard, Spyscape’s chief of staff.
Ready to bring out your inner James Bond? Here’s what you need to know.
It was designed by actual spies
The advisory board for Spyscape consists of former heads of agencies both in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as white-hat hackers who help governments and corporations find and fix digital security issues.
“Whenever we explained the concept and how we’re thinking about making this world of spying more accessible, we had really great reception,” says Prichard about approaching these usually reclusive figures about the project.
They also contributed some cool items to the exhibits, especially the tongue-in-cheek wall of Guy Fawkes masks personalized by real members of the hacker group Anonymous.
You're playing a spy in training
With the experts’ guidance, Spyscape has created several interactive experiences based on real tests given to aspiring espionage agents.
As a World War II spy behind enemy lines, you must escape by decrypting coded messages. You’ll get a crash course in how to spot a liar, then test those skills by sitting in on an interrogation where you must determine if a suspect is lying.
But the coolest room by far is the Special Ops training room, where you’ll be dodging motion-sensor lasers to complete challenges, Oceans Twelve style.
And to toast your victory, Spyscape has its own cocktail bar for all your shaken-not-stirred martini needs.
Fictional heroes (and villains) have nothing on the real deal
Each of Spyscape’s seven zones is framed by the personal story of a real spy, who will overshadow any fictional hero or villain.
There’s Jake Davis, the teenager from one of Scotland’s far-flung islands who hacked into the CIA. There’s Robert Hanssen, the KGB spy who managed to work for the FBI for 22 years before getting caught. And there are ordinary heroes, too, like the Associated Press journalists whose Pulitzer-winning investigation broke up a slavery ring aboard American fishing boats using satellites and other spy tactics.
Then there’s Prichard’s personal favorite: Virginia Hall, an American woman with a wooden leg who got herself recruited by the British and spent three years running resistance rings in France, one of the longest any spy managed to last in that role. “She’s criminally underknown outside intelligence circles, so we’re really excited to be able to tell her story,” says Prichard.
This is not your ordinary gift shop
Most everything spying related is done by computers these days, which doesn’t make for particularly thrilling museum displays.
But a century ago, you had the German Enigma machine, foldable motorcycles and items as small as a domino with hidden compartments.
All this means a gift shop stocked with stuff just as cool, with over 100 spy-themed items developed in-house by Spyscape like a scarf with hidden compartments and encrypted birthday cards, plus a hacker-curated bookshop with over 700 titles.
You’ll ensure intelligence plans turn into action and risky maneuvers into success. Your missions include: researching targets; preparing clandestine entry to buildings; working in teams to watch for followers; and meeting agents. Your work is usually unseen, but ignored only by the foolish. #SPYSCAPE Spy Profile 3 of 10. Come to our museum and discover which of the 10 spy roles suits you best…
Consider this your spy audition
When they enter, visitors are given an identity band that is scanned at kiosks throughout the exhibits, with various tests to measure traits like risk tolerance and personality through questions like “I’ll say anything to get what I want” or “I get stressed easily.” They also record how well you perform on the spy training activities.
At the end of the museum in the Debrief room, you stand before a digital mirror while all the data is compiled to reveal which of 10 spy roles you’d be best suited for.
“We developed this profiling system in concert with the former head of training for British intelligence, so it’s a super legitimate look at how the intelligence community thinks about what it takes to be different kinds of spy,” says Prichard.
In other words, we wouldn't be surprised if someone were keeping an eye on your results.
Spyscape opens Feb. 16 at 928 Eighth Ave. in Midtown Manhattan. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and admission is $39.