It was raining heavily as my family and I arrived in the city. We were headed to SPYSCAPE, a new spy museum, and the turn-your-collar-up weather was helping us get in the mood. We checked the address twice because 928 8th Avenue looked like a sleek modern office building.
Ah, we noted, even the building is undercover.
We stashed our weeping umbrellas in plastic umbrella bags that are provided in the outer lobby, and then we were even happier to find lockers in the inner lobby. Tip number one, load everything in these lockers - coats, bags, purses, umbrellas, backpacks - you do not want to be encumbered on this adventure.
After you pay admission the helpful staff fits you with a personalized wristband that you will use at the three-sided, interactive kiosks throughout the museum. The bands save data about your response to the personality quizzes, brainteasers and other interactive spy challenges to create your personal spy profile using a system developed with psychologists and a former Head of Training at British Intelligence. Your brainpower, physical prowess and observation skills will all be tested - in a fun and engaging way.
Additional staff guides you into the sleek modern interior of the museum dotted with sparkling lights, and done in hip tones of grey, black and steel. The introductory video, or “briefing”, is delivered in a large moving elevator with panoramic projector screens. And then you are off.
Families can move at their own pace throughout the exhibits, challenges and kiosk stations. Tip number two, don’t worry about doing the kiosks in order if one is being used (with three sides, three people can use one kiosk at the same time), move on to the next and circle back. No need to keep your kids waiting longer than necessary.
My family jumped right in and it was clear within about 10 minutes that this was going to be an awesome day. There was a nice flow to the museum. As we moved from kiosk to kiosk we discovered exhibits about amazing real-life spy stories and impressive displays of historic encryption devices and other spy memorabilia.
While the museum focuses on real-life spying there are a few nods to Hollywood that are a nice touch. The adults might be interested to see James Bond’s Aston Martin on display and I got a kick out of the costume Benedict Cumberbatch wore when he portrayed Alan Turing in the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game.
There’s a whole room devoted to Turing, the somewhat eccentric cryptologist who changed the course of the Second World War by cracking the Enigma code, a feat that cryptanalysts thought was impossible. The exhibit helps you understand the complexity of the achievement, a view of an actual Enigma, as well as a replica of the machine Turing used to crack the code.
Overall the exhibits offer a timeline of espionage and the spies and traitors that have been involved in undercover operations.
Kids and adults will also be intrigued by the stories of Virginia Hall, the American spy with one leg who the Nazis called “the most dangerous of all allied spies”, the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Robert Hanssen, considered the worst traitor in FBI history. It’s an interactive history lesson.
And interspersed between the kiosks and exhibits are what my family thought were the best - the challenges.
In Interrogation Stations, we each took a turn to sit in individual booths where we tried to determine if the person on the screen was lying – or not. Then we each got a chance to try and lie and fool the the interviewer. Hint: it has a lot to do with body language. You immediately get your score. Apparently I am a pretty good liar – my kids, thank goodness are not.
Parents get to prove they really do have eyes in the back of their heads in Surveillance Station. We entered a huge room with 360-degree projection of live and pre-recorded CCTV imagery. As you don headsets a surveillance officer prompts you to find various items such as an umbrella, a boy with a red shirt, a bicycle – then you speak into the headset to identify their location in a set amount of time. It’s all designed to test your powers of observation. It was amazing to see the intensity in the faces of adults and children as they searched the screen and revolved in circles in their eagerness to get it right. It’s an understatement that this was extremely engaging and harder than you would think.
Then the big hit, Special Ops Tunnels or as my kids named it, the laser room. One at a time we entered a short hallway with crisscrossing lasers and buttons. The goal is to avoid the laser beams while pressing as many buttons as you can on the wall as you move from one end of the hallway to the other. Talk about fun! All ages enjoy this challenge. I spoke to several 8-year-olds who were on line for the third time and were having a blast. Generally the museum is geared for kids ages 10 and up, but if parents can read and explain some of the information and questions to younger kids, an 8-year-old can have fun.
And now the moment we had all been waiting for … the debrief. Here, based on your responses at the kiosks and your performance in the challenges, you learn your spy profile, of which there are 10. You can be anything from a hacker to a cryptologist or an agent handler to a spy catcher.
If you have to know I would be best suited as an Intelligence Analyst. Everyone in my family was assigned a different profile, which made sense. My kids got a kick out of my assessment, which read in part: You are no James Bond, but you are not a wimp either!
SPYSCAPE also includes a full bookshop, a fun gift shop with items at all price points and a modern streamlined café that offers snacks, sandwiches, hot and cold beverages and white orchids on the tables.
My family had a blast here. We spent about two and a half hours in what I would describe as not only a museum, but also an interactive experience.
What I liked best was the interaction it afforded my family. We dashed from kiosk to kiosk and compared our answers, we championed each other as each one of us found a skill we were good at and we laughed at the puzzles we couldn’t solve - alone or together. We learned about ourselves and about each other. We had tons of fun in an educational environment, made good memories and managed to discover our inner spy. Now we go by the SPYSCAPE motto: Question Everything.
928 8th Ave., corner of 55th St.
New York, N.Y.
Save $5 per ticket with online purchase
Online purchase: $39 adults, $32 children, ages 3 to 12
Onsite purchase: $44 adults, $37 children, ages 3 to 12
Tickets are date and time specific
Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Last entry 7:30 p.m.
Allow 2 hours for your visit
Recommended for ages 10 and up