Bringing the Invisible to Light at the New International Spy Museum

May 9, 2019
Bringing the Invisible to Light at the New International Spy Museum


Connected Project
International Spy Museum
May 9, 2019
Bringing the Invisible to Light at the New International Spy Museum

On May 12, 2019, the new 140,000-square-foot International Spy Museum (SPY) opens in Washington, DC. For the new Museum, G&A designed the overall visitor experience including exhibitions, media, retail, lobby, and graphics that push the boundaries of innovative storytelling and immersive design.


Image Credit: © Albert Vecerka/Esto


20 Years in the Making

The original International Spy Museum concept, launched in 2002, was conceived by owner Milton Maltz and envisioned by G&A’s founder, Patrick Gallagher. His interdisciplinary team designed and implemented a new model for immersive museums. “This project represents a 20-year partnership working with the founder of the Spy Museum. Building on the successful legacy of the original SPY, the new Museum is a totally reinvigorated concept that will surprise visitors,” Patrick shares.

The International Spy Museum was the first of its kind—a museum experience that blurred the lines between education and entertainment. As the first major self-sustaining museum, it revolutionized not just how museums are experienced, but also how they could operate free from traditional fundraising.

Full Immersion: Living Your Cover

Picking up the story where the original SPY left off, we designed an immersive theatrical experience for the new Museum using rich textural elements and a powerful graphic language to pull the visitor into the hidden world of espionage.

“Our vision for the new SPY invites the audience into a world of intrigue—a personal exploration that immerses visitors into the experience of living their cover,” explains G&A’s Principal, Cybelle Jones. “Through objects, immersion, light, and media, the visitor becomes the subject, and the exhibits become the stage.”

Building on G&A’s previous experience with highly personalized RFID exhibits, we designed a curated journey that invites the audience to see if they have what it takes to be a spy. Layered installations highlight key human intelligence figures along with their intriguing spy gadgets, creating a world of spy stories to illuminate a different perspective on history. Complex concepts of how CIA analysts work are brought to life through interactive role-playing, guided by real-life experts.

Establishing Relevance: Using Objects and Stories

“The new Spy Museum is as intriguing and surprising as the stories it tells,” shares lead Exhibit Designer, Sanne van Haastert. Stories are told through the lens of the people who lived them, sometimes through their own interviews, and other times through their written word.

By matching objects from the Museum’s 5,000-piece artifact collection with interpretive graphics, voice recordings, and media, we bring resonance to the collection that could not be achieved otherwise. And beloved experiences from the old SPY, such as the “crawl-through tunnel” and “Trojan Horse,” have been reimagined to establish a link to the tradecrafts of the past and build upon their relevance today.

Exploring Complex Topics: Interactive Experiences

The exhibitions utilize the latest media and interactive technologies to provide core problem-solving examples, developed by G&A in tandem with Museum curators and intelligence experts. The “Red-Teaming” interactive recreates the CIA’s process of pinpointing Osama bin Laden’s compound through deduction strategies and interactive gaming, audioscapes, and projection mapping. This installation has already become a standout moment for SPY.

“We believe provocative, interactive media installations can be a platform for dialogue with our audiences,” says Ariel Efron, Creative Director of Media at G&A. “The public is skeptical about the balance between personal privacy and national security, so we used interactive media to convey the concepts of modern-day intelligence gathering in a way that explores the real-life applications for its use.”  

In our signature “Cyber Infinity” installation, we created an infinity mirror room that reflects the latest battlefield of cyberspace—a limitless and rapidly evolving platform for spying today. This seamlessly integrated journey highlights the dark side of the Internet in a way that establishes relevance to our everyday lives. As the Washingtonian points out, the “Infinity Room will undoubtedly be one of the most Instagrammed backdrops on social media.”

A Surprising, Unexpected Journey

Throughout the Museum experience, we strategically balance content, collections, media, interactivity, and graphic storytelling. This is a paradigm shift in how we present complex and, at times, controversial subject manner to a broad audience. SPY provides an authentic journey while allowing visitors to experience the nuanced and secretive world of intelligence.

“How do you design a world that’s hidden from sight—where nothing is what it seems?” Rod Vera, G&A’s Studio Director, explains, “we turned real-life events inside-out to reveal the process and the fantastic intelligence stories that have shaped the world we live in today.”

You think you know, but upon closer examination, something unexpected and surprising is revealed. In the end, you’ll find: all is not what it seems.


Spy Museum in the Press