Gone are the shoe phones. Homing pigeons, sexy poison-tipped umbrellas, and trick briefcases are also all sleeping with the fishes. Compared to the tuxedo-filled tales of yore, spying today has become, well, banal.
Instead of using clandestine gadgetry hidden inside of domestic objects, intelligence operations have become a passive game of data transactions and digital tracking. In attempting to highlight all the high-tech marvels 21st-century snooping has introduced, a new museum in New York City’s Times Square district exposes surveillance’s screen-based drudgery.
Designed by celebrated British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, Spyscape is a new 60,000 square foot museum that aspires to give visitors a taste of what it takes to be an intelligence operative these days. As it turns out, it’s pretty boring.
A visit to Spyscape begins and ends with a screen. After a personalized activity-monitoring bracelet is clipped on your wrist, visitors hop on a room-sized elevator and are shown an orientation video via giant flat screens. Next you approach an iPad to answer some questions, then to a series of stations to take various quizzes, and your journey culminates in a cavernous control room illuminated with many, many surveillance screens.
This surveillance room—which acts as the emotional climax of the entire museum—contains an altar to Spyscape’s martyr: Edward Snowden. A large display contains the NSA whistleblower’s telepresence robot that he uses to “attend” conferences, an action figure, a DVD of his eponymous 2016 biopic starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a recoding of Jean-Michel Jarre’s techno tribute that visitors can bop to. There may be pro forma props behind glass cases that hearken to the analog days of espionage—but Spyscape’s true hero is an IT guy.
Spyscapes’s most active installation involves a tunnel where visitors snake between laser beams while trying to hit lights on a wall. This episode definitely conjures slinky, spy-like escape acrobatics, but in the end, your performance is still tallied by a numerical score collected on that wristband. No one gets zapped or trapped—and where’s the fun in that?
After going through the circuit of tests and queries, the wrist tracker gathers enough data to assess your spy abilities and interests. Entering the final room, your scores are tallied to match to one of 10 spy profiles: spy master, intelligence analyst, spy catcher, cryptologist, agent handler, surveillance officer, technical-opps officer, special operations, or intelligence analyst. The profiling system was developed by psychologists and a former head of training at a British government spy agency.
In describing his design at an architecture symposium last December, Adjaye argued that “museums today are longer about objects, but about narratives.” In Spyscape, Adjaye tells an abstract story about how intangible bits of information shape the world order. But compared to Washington DC’s visually eclectic and immersive International Spy Museum, where you can crawl through the ductwork, Spyscape feels like a slick, heavily branded video arcade. It’s the SoulCycle of espionage.
But perhaps that’s hardly the architect’s fault.
In the years since the Cold War, espionage has largely been dominated by the technology that Adjaye glorifies. Like the rest of us, most clandestine operatives are glued to a network of digital screens and data visualizations. This has certainly made real-world espionage neater, safer, and more efficient—but it’s also arguably made simulating it in a museum much less thrilling.