{Germany} I Spy With My Little Eye

September 21, 2015

Germany

Berlin, city of spies. With its history of espionage still very much within living memory, what better place to open Germany’s only spy museum, and one of only a few worldwide.

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In my previous post, I shared some photos from the exclusive preview I was invited to last week. Since then, the museum has opened its doors to the general public. So what awaits you there, what did I think of it, and is it worth the 18 Euro entry fee? All questions I have been asked several times since last week.

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Let me begin with my own initial impressions, and I have to say I thought it was very impressive – from the attention to detail in the spy focused branding, to, of course, the actual content. I have visited the International Spy Museum in Washington DC a couple of times, which I love, and it’s very different. The one in Berlin seemed like a more sleek, grown up version of the spy museum genre. Though they were keen to emphasise that it was aimed at all ages interested in the subject matter.

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Your espionage museum adventure starts, as soon as step inside the building at Leipziger Platz, where dozens of CCTV cameras are pointed at you – some of which actually record live footage, broadcast to the screens beyond. You then begin your visit by scanning your ticket and entering the exhibition through a special ‘high security’ door, like something straight out of a James Bond movie. So far so good.

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An introduction area gives you a timeline of the long history of espionage, dating from the first biblical messengers, to the whistle blowers of the present day, before you follow the digitally enhanced staircase – whose changing displays give you a teaser of what awaits you upstairs – to the main exhibition floor.

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As you would expect, in a spy museum located in Berlin, there is a large emphasis on the Cold War, but overall there are over ten other topic areas to discover, including chronological topics such as the two World Wars, and thematic topics such as cryptology, poison, or double agents. And espionage in popular culture gets a mention too, of course, with a nod to film and literature.

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Of the museum’s over 1000 object strong collection, around 300 objects are on display, including e.g. an original Enigma machine. One of my favourite exhibits, was the collection of containers and dead drops, showing the lengths spies went to, to hide, transport and exchange sensitive material.

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For those who like their visits a little more immersive, there are a couple of interactive activities to try your hand at, such as deciphering, password hacking, and – for the agile among us – the laser parcours!

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Beside the objects and the interactives, the museum also boasts around 200 touch screens and monitors (so we were told, I didn’t count them all!), via which visitors can access content and information at their own pace, e.g. via the interactive ‘spy map’, but which also enable the museum to update their digital content to reflect current events. Alongside around 100,000 LEDs, 55,000 metres of data cables, 20 laser projections and 2 Oculus Rifts, this is a museum of high modern standards.

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For those not impressed by numbers, the museum’s most unique selling point – at least to me – is undoubtedly the new, previously unpublished film footage that was recorded especially for the museum, featuring first person interviews with former top spies and experts on various topics relating to espionage. I would love to return to the museum just for these alone, and spend some time listening to and watching all the recordings.

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Your visit ends back downstairs in the present, with a look at ‘big data’ and cyber security, before you exit in to the cafe where you can, apparently, sample Mata Hari’s favourite dish. I didn’t get a chance to verify this – another reason to return.

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So, the big question many people were asking, is it worth the 18 Euro admission fee. First up, you need to remember it’s a privately funded museum, and of very high modern standards, so a higher admission fee is to be expected. There are also discounts e.g. for students, groups and families. Secondly, it’s a museum about a niche subject, so it definitely helps if you are interested in spies and espionage (can you tell I am?), and expect to spend some time there. We only spent about an hour there, since it was a guided preview tour, but if I went there on my own and took the time to read, watch and listen to all the content available, I could see myself easily spending two to three hours there. It’s all about priorities, and what you want to spend your money on – in comparison, e.g. just think about how much a cinema visit costs these days. So in short I would say yes, if you are interested in the subject matter it is definitely worth a visit, but I would recommend allowing yourself plenty of time to take full advantage.

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The museum is open Mondays to Fridays year round, except for 24th December. You can find up to date information on the opening times and admission prices on the museum website. As we were going round for our preview, they were just in the process of installing the free WiFi for visitors, and some of the cloakroom lockers also come with built in smart phone charging stations! So, will you be heading along for some ‘I spy’? Or maybe you have already been? I would love to hear about your visit.

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A note for families: The creative team behind it all were very keen to emphasise that the museum was aimed at all ages and that families are welcome, but my gut instinct was from 8-10 years old onwards (depends a lot on your child, of course – I was a geeky kid reading Agatha Christie at age 8 – but I wouldn’t take my 5 year old yet), though there are also plans in the works for an app to make your visit even more engaging. And I was doing my best to convince them that introducing a ‘spy kit’ for families to borrow on their visit would be a great idea ;)

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