Spyscape, New York

Eleanor Mills, Issue 118/06, p34-35, 01.06.2018
Eleanor Mills talks to Shelby Prichard, the chief of staff at this espionage museum, about tapping into visitors’ inner James Bond
Bletchley Park is Britain’s answer to the history of spying, but it focuses on the past, not the now. However, a new spy museum in New York fills the gap – Spyscape is dedicated to telling the up-to-date story of espionage and how it affects our day-to-day lives.

Spyscape, purpose-built by the British architecture firm Adjaye Associates, opened earlier this year. It is not just a museum that tells the story of spies throughout history, it is also an experience for visitors to test their skills as secret agents. As well as interactives in the museum, there is an assessment process, devised by former authorities in the field.

The personal stories told in the venue shed light on the history of spying, but the museum also explores contemporary issues such as hacking and the work of WikiLeaks.

Adjaye consulted former members of renowned hacking collectives, station chiefs and directors of intelligence agencies for help with the design of the building. The result is a mixture of smoked glass, polished steel and dim lighting to create a dark and altogether mysterious atmosphere.

Where did the inspiration for a museum on spying come from?

Shelby Prichard: It came from a recognition of two things: the universal fascination with secret intelligence and the growing demand for experiences. We wanted to combine these things in ways that would be educational, entertaining and empowering.

How is the story told?

Spyscape has a world-class collection of espionage artefacts and gadgets. It is narrative-led and focuses on all forms of secret intelligence, from government spy tactics to hacking and investigative journalism. We also give people the unique opportunity to test their skills as a spy – it is a place of self-discovery as much as it is a museum. We want to raise visitors’ awareness of their skills and help them understand how these can be useful in their daily lives. The key is to engage people with compelling stories, showing how ordinary humans have done extraordinary things. We want people to leave having learned something.

What spy themes do you explore?

The scope of Spyscape is global, exploring incredible stories, characters and artefacts both past and present. There are seven galleries themed around different aspects of espionage: Cyber-Warfare, Deception, Encryption, Hacking, Intelligence, Special Operations and Surveillance. Each space uses artefacts and narratives of how people have used spy tactics, but we have also tried hard to connect the subject matter to our lives today.

Most of the spaces offer visitors the opportunity to test their aptitude for niche spy skills too. For instance, as part of the Deception section, visitors learn to lie, and learn to spot lies, in an interrogation room. A pulse monitor and facial and audio recognition software track heartbeat, facial expressions and vocal cues as they try to lie their way out of a tight situation.

What’s the most innovative aspect of the museum?

While Spyscape incorporates everything you would expect from a contemporary museum, what makes it a new kind of destination are the experiential elements that incorporate innovative technologies to create real spy challenges and give visitors a personal spy profile. We also invested time, money and effort to ensure that the form, function and materials of the museum far exceed expectations.

Is it more of an interactive experience than a museum?

Spyscape is three things: firstly, it is a contemporary museum featuring spy stories, devices and characters brought to life by technology and storytelling. Secondly, it is an interactive experience where you can try spy challenges including observation in surveillance missions and agility in special operations laser tunnels. And, last but not least, we hope it is a personal journey that will help visitors discover their inner James Bond through our profiling system, which was developed with a former head of training at a British intelligence agency, as well as with industrial psychologists from University College London.

How did you develop the content?

From the perspective of any ethical national spy agency, it’s smart to have individuals and corporations on board who are educated about the risks of hacking and espionage today.

Spy agencies know what we are doing and we have a group of expert advisers that includes former directors and station chiefs of major international agencies. They have provided expertise, insights, suggestions and strategic advice. As one might expect, we are not at liberty to reveal the specifics of individual contributions or the names of the contributors.

How does the architecture respond to the theme?

Adjaye Associates’ design for the 60,000 sq ft space draws on the architectural language of the most significant spy organisations.
Various strategies are used in the spaces to continually shift visitors’ vantage point and prioritise their experiences of discovery and observation. This is done through lighting, screens and transparencies between floors.

Smoked glass, dark acoustic panelling and mirror-polished steel create the ambience we really wanted. Adjaye Associates designed both the overall architecture and the exhibition spaces.

What do you hope visitors will take from their experience?

Spyscape connects its subject matter to our lives today. The museum’s hacking gallery, for example, includes a “protect yourself” section that encourages you to do simple things such as covering your laptop camera to avoid hackers taking control of it, and avoiding using public wifi.
The surveillance gallery explains that the trail you leave online can affect things such as how much you pay for an airline ticket or what sort of jobs you might be offered.

We are passionate about empowering people with an understanding of how spying, in all its forms, can affect them every day.