Chris Costa, Director of the International Spy Museum, the United States. Photo © Courtesy of the museum
1.What is your museum about and what is your work there?
The International Spy Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., or as we like to say, SPY, is the only museum in the world dedicated to fostering public understanding of intelligence and espionage from a global perspective. The Museum reveals the shadowy world of spying and intelligence for visitors from across the world. We explore not only how intelligence has played a critical role in world history, but its impact on our daily lives. Our exhibits and programs help participants unpack relevant current events.
When I joined the SPY team my expertise and leadership had been developed through more than three decades of intelligence and special operations work, from battlefields to the White House. In short, I serve as the Museum’s “resident spy.” As a former intelligence officer, I bring my unique perspective to the Museum’s engaging programs and exhibits—from workshops on the streets of DC to virtual field trips, lectures, and events. Our collection of international espionage artifacts is the largest ever publicly displayed—and we are recognized as the Guinness World Record holder!
Because the International Spy Museum is located in Washington, D.C., a hub for international intelligence, we are literally at the heart of the ever-changing world of global espionage. So, I am in the unique position of constantly growing our friendly ‘network’ of former and current intelligence officers to keep our spy stories fresh, exciting, and diverse. If you happen see me around D.C. in the evening, in our incredible restaurants, I could be meeting with a former spy or someone still in the business. But just know there’s a good chance I will also be watching the door… old habits are hard to break!
2.What is the impact on your digital activity? Do you have tips to share with your colleagues?
Our museum is dedicated to being the “go to” place for all things spy. We aim to engage learners and audiences both in the ways they learn best and at the different places they go for information. Our exhibits were designed to reach all learning styles, but we don’t stop there: we engage with individuals through their social media feeds, cable or local news, radio, podcasts, or online or print news outlets—our online resources are extensive, interactive, and one of a kind.
I am proud of the way we fuse exciting storytelling with technology to create an engaging, interactive, and personalized experience for our museum visitors. For example, our “Undercover Mission’ uses RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to give people/participants their own mission, cover identity, and code name. Then, through specially-developed interactives, they can complete a range of compelling and challenging spy tasks — analyzing clues, living their cover, finding and contacting sources, breaking codes, and creating disguises, to name just a few.
Take it from me, visitors leave SPY with a taste of what it’s like to operate in the shadowy world of international espionage—experiencing both its challenges, successes, and failures. The biggest tip I have for my colleagues is to have the organizational flexibility to do things differently and boldly. Our staff worked harder than ever during the pandemic, and that’s saying something. I was gratified to watch our team pivot – almost seamlessly – to reach people in whole new ways, virtually. We created virtual tours and programs visitors couldn’t get anywhere else (i.e., Cocktails with a Spy, Spy Trivia, a SPY-based family game night, etc.). While SPY was closed from March 2020 to June 2020, the Museum continued to actively educate and entertain people providing close to 200 live virtual programs to adults, students/teachers, and families in all 50 states and over 40 countries.
Our SpyCast and YouTube channel has continued to dramatically expand our reach to 1,900,000 million listens (just from 2021) on SpyCast and 3,218,739 Million people on YouTube from last year to March 2022. Like other museums, we are now contemplating what we should continue to offer once the pandemic has run its course. We know that we have a large global audience, especially for fan favorite programs like our monthly virtual Spy Chat. So, in addition to returning to onsite programming, we plan to offer many of our programs virtually to ensure that we can keep bringing in international practitioners and scholars and that our viewers from around the world can keep tuning in.
For students, teachers, and parents we translated our live programs into highly interactive virtual programs and created new lesson plans, educational activities, and interactive gadget labs specifically for this medium. We also worked with a local educational television show to provide weekly video lessons that utilized fun spy content to help get children excited about learning math, critical thinking skills, and history, among other subjects. All of these programs were incredibly popular, which was far beyond what we could have dreamed of at this moment in time. We received an amazing number of thank you notes from our viewers and participants. In fact, one woman thanked us for helping her marriage by giving her and her husband an opportunity to work together as a team!
3.What advice would you give a visitor to fully discover your museum?
We have learned that most visitors spend close to three hours in the exhibitions—but there is so much more to see; you could easily spend a whole day enjoying the Museum. I encourage people to download a copy of our Spy Guide map so they can better plan their visit by discovering the topics they may be particularly interested in exploring. I always recommend they take part in Undercover Mission, where they can unflinchingly test their spy skills. And I also encourage people to watch the many videos throughout the Museum.
We know that everyone learns differently, and most of our films feature real intelligence officers providing an insider’s look at some of the biggest moments in history. My mom for example, on her first time visit to the Museum, watched me tell my Real Spy Story about an experience in Afghanistan. She discovered things about my work that I had never told her about! An interactive experience that is a particular favorite of mine is called Red Teaming. Here, visitors participate in an exercise that CIA analysts used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Led by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, it virtually takes people through the process in which analysts poke holes in theories, challenge conclusions, and weigh evidence to deliver to decision makers. And of course, we want people to take advantage of the rarest opportunity they will ever have to come face-to-face with authentic intelligence artifacts.
These gadgets range from the tiny, information-rich microdot to a clever shoe that holds a secret transmitter in its heel and from the ever-popular rectal tool kit to the pop culture icon: a tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. Regardless of the ages of our visitors, we know people can’t help leaving the Museum awed by the stories, artifacts and experiences—and with a better understanding of what they read about intelligence in the media every day.
Pigeon Camera, Lipstick Pistol, Cyanide Glasses © Courtesy of the International Spy Museum
4.What are the future projects of your museum?
True to our name, we are committed to telling international spy stories and finding new ways to do so. This May we are working with the Colombian Embassy here in D.C. to present a pop-up mini-exhibit focused on operation JAQUE, a highly successful Colombian military deception operation that recovered fifteen hostages from Las Fuerzas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) in 2008, without a shot fired or anyone injured.
We’ll be featuring authentic artifacts from the operation loaned by the Colombian government. I am excited we are telling this story. From a personal perspective, I’ve been very involved in the effort to recover Americans being held hostage by terrorists, so it resonates with me in a special way. And, it fits perfectly into our ongoing commitment to tell more diverse and more international stories.
Beyond our pop-up exhibition, we’re exploring ideas for new special exhibits and experiences to make our museum even more immersive in the coming years. So, stay tuned. I would share more about our future projects, but those plans are top secret for the time being.
The International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. was inaugurated in 2002 in the Penn Quarter and contains the most complete collection in the world of objects related to espionage. The exhibits reveal the secrets and espionage techniques of the most famous organizations such as the KGB, MI5 and the CIA. On display are original videos on spy training during World War II and the reproduction of James Bond’s Aston Martin used in the movie “Goldfinger Mission”. It is a museum dedicated to adults but also to children with a program of events dedicated to everyone with special effects.
Colonel Costa is the executive director of the museum and has 34 years of experience in the Department of Defense and among other things, in his career he served for 25 years in the United States Army working in counterintelligence, intelligence and with Special Operations Forces (SOFs) in Central America, Europe and throughout the Middle East. He earned two bronze stars in human intelligence in Afghanistan; subsequently assigned to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Costa served as Deputy Director of the 1st Civilian Squadron. In 2013, he was inducted into the U.S. Special Operations Commando Hall of Honor for lifetime service to U.S. Special Operations.
Chris Costa joined the International Spy Museum as the Executive Director in 2018.