Suave, suited and on the posh side: that’s probably the image that pops into your head when someone says “spy”. If it’s not James Bond himself, then it might be one of the gorgeous actors from Spooks, or perhaps Robert Donat as Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps. In fact, the world of espionage casts a much wider net, with anonymous hackers and investigative journalists reliant on secretive skills as much as MI5 moles.
This bigger picture of all things covert is highlighted in a fun new attraction in New York. Spyscape, which opened recently in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood, is part museum, part interactive challenge to help you discover your specialist skills.
It’s set in an ultramodern glass and metal building, with dramatic lighting and cleanly designed displays and walk-throughs. On entry we’re given wristbands embedded with a chip to log in at computer points as we go. Here we’re given various tests – from personality questions to how we deal with risk (seeing how far you’ll blow up an animated balloon before it bursts) – and our answers are collected and analysed via the bands, so that, at the end of our visit, we can be sorted into the perfect spy career.
It’s easy to think of spying as an old-fashioned, wartime occupation, but many of the rooms in Spyscape are a reminder that we’re always being watched – and it’s big business. The introductory video talks about the vast streams of data that are collected on us every day. We leave the lift feeling paranoid – not helped by the data-farming wristbands we’re now wearing. Although we’re reassured that the museum is particularly careful with its intel: the website even says that intelligence companies sometimes contact them for potential recruitment, but would-be Bonds will be disappointed to know they decline these advances.
The museum is split into six main zones (Encryption, Deception, Surveillance, Hacking, Special Ops and Intelligence) highlighting different fields, and a handful of the people made famous within them – anyone from Alan Turing or Virginia Hall, to more controversial modern figures like Edward Snowden or the hackers from LulzSec. Each zone also has a game or test to complete, so our skills can be ranked. We begin in Encryption, admiring replicas of the enigma machine where the basic rules behind it are explained through videos and information panels. Some of the details go over my head, but I’m able to understand enough of the basics to save an undercover agent using my decoding skills on a video game – despite distinctly clammy palms.
Next it’s on to the subtle art of lying. Deception is obviously a key skill for any mole, and we’re filmed speaking porkies to demonstrate our giveaways – it turns out I’m unable to keep a small smile from the corners of my mouth. We find out lots of other “tells” too, so woe betide the next person who’s late to meet me because of “transport issues”...
And if this is all sounding a bit cerebral, there’s a chance to blow off serious steam as we dodge green lasers to hit targets in the Special Ops training room.
The Surveillance area is my favourite. The room is circular and the walls buzz with CCTV footage. Popping on a headset, we’re given commands such as “find the woman with a shopping bag by her feet”, and given just a few seconds to scan the streams and identify potential threats. It’s fast-paced and gets the adrenaline going, plus it gives me a newfound appreciation for shopping centre security guards.
As well as history, the museum is packed with tips for would-be Bonds, such as how to invent the perfect alias (never use your real first name to reduce the risk of blurting out your surname) or how to instigate perfect brush contact, when you’ve got secret information to hand to an ally.
Spyscape isn’t a cheap day out but it is a slick and fascinating journey into espionage, with games that are pitted cleverly to appeal to both older children and adults. It’s worth visiting for its extensive bookshop alone – rammed with real and fictional thrilling tales of spies throughout the ages. As well as inspired by heroic tales of truth-seeking journalists and double agents, it’s likely you’ll leave feeling more protective than ever of your precious data, and keen to update your computer’s virus protection at the very least.
At the end, in the Debrief section, feeling slightly paranoid but exhilarated, we’re taken through our strengths and weaknesses, based on scientific research and methods used by psychologists to identify people’s cognitive, emotional and social traits. We’re then presented with one potential role out of 10 options, which could be anything from spymaster or intelligence operative, to a surveillance officer or even a hacker.
What was my resulting career? If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.
Spyscape costs $39 (£31) for adults and $32 for children.
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