Exposed: The Secrets of Lighting the International Spy Museum

Editor's Note: The author, Robert Bell, of Shock Lighting, worked as a programmer on the following project. Here is his informal tour of some of the highlights found in the new International Spy Museum.

It's an industry in which the sole directive is to remain inconspicuous, but there's nothing secret about the International Spy Museum, which opened in Washington, DC, on July 18 and 19. The largest collection of spy-related artifacts in the world has already garnered enormous media attention, with the public lining up around the block to discover the truth about international espionage techniques.

The International Spy Museum is the first in the world designed to explore the craft, practice, history, and contemporary role of espionage. Radio giant Milton Maltz, who also had a hand in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, conceived the museum seven years ago, and now, $40 million later, it is a reality. Maltz, who worked for the National Security Agency during the Korean War, assembled a board of directors and advisors that included many ex-CIA, -FBI, and -KGB personnel as well as international intelligence historians. From the outset, the project's mandate was to be serious — not a collection of Austin Powers films clips, with a gift shop filled with Man from U.N.C.L.E. buttons. To ensure the legitimacy of the project, Maltz appointed E. Peter Earnest as the museum's first executive director. Earnest's career spans 36 years of service with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The mission of the International Spy Museum is to educate the public about espionage in an engaging manner and to provide a dynamic context that fosters understanding of its role in and impact on current and historic events. The museum focuses on human intelligence and reveals the role spies have played in world events throughout history.

Until recently, most of the artifacts now on display were classified items. Finding them was challenging enough; getting people to let go of them was another undertaking. Even pop culture items have proved difficult to obtain; by opening day, the museum hadn't secured the rights to the James Bond theme or any Bond footage. Nevertheless, the acquisitions team has filled the museum with items such as a Soviet lipstick pistol, nicknamed the Kiss of Death, issued to female KGB agents; a Czech hole-in-the-wall camera; a German Enigma cipher machine; bugs from the CIA and MI5, and countless other genuine artifacts.

Located, ironically, near the FBI building, the museum fills a city block. The Smith Group, as project architects, supervised the preservation of the outside facades and the complex process of joining the internal architecture of five heritage buildings. Adamstein & Demetriou Architects designed the restaurants, while exhibit designer Gallagher and Associates handled the museum spaces; FRCH was in charge of retail areas, Design Craftsmen fabricated many exhibits, and Quatrefoil designed the interactive aspects. Mark G. Anderson Consultants provided overall project management. Over 27 firms were involved in the project, including Edwards Technologies Inc. (ETI) for A/V and show control and Mather Jorgensen Lighting Design for architectural and themed lighting design. Barbizon Capital installed the lighting systems under the supervision of Mark Fink.

The design here is theatrical in concept; it's a long way off from the tall ceilings, hardwood floors, and white light of most museums. Ted Mather, principal lighting designer on the project, pulls from his vast Broadway experience to give the space a textured, dynamic feel. His use of color, gobos, and controlled light are evident throughout, making you feel immersed in the experience as you navigate your way through a three-story-tall maze of displays, theatre, and interactives.

In the lobby, a wall of video screens shows black-and-white images of clandestine operations. High End Systems Studio Spot° 250s sweep the room, projecting gobos of notable quotations from real and fictional espionage types such as Sun Tzu (“There is no place you can't put spies to good use”) and Maxwell Smart (“Would you believe — the old spy in a cow suit?”). An array of recorded voices taunt you with phrases such as “All is not what it seems,” “I lie for a living,” and “You are being watched.” The latter idea is emphasized throughout; at one station you can don headsets and listen to other visitors in the museum. Children, and others willing to crawl through it, can sneak through a ventilation duct above some of the displays to spy on those below.

Once you are handed your “passport,” you pass through a device that looks like a futuristic version of the metal detectors at airports. You then enter an elevator that takes you to the third floor. As you stand in line, some of the floor panels beneath you are clear, showing the crawl space and mechanicals below. Rosco fluorescent color tubes paint eerie tones of R26 (Light Red) and R370 (Italian Blue) hinting that, as you walk through the space, you're to look beyond what you see on the surface.

The elevator shaft itself reflects this notion; its walls are made of perforated metal and illuminated by blue-colored Stonco metal-halide fixtures that reveal the internal workings of the lift as it ascends. Floor-recessed LSI AR111s with Devon colored-glass filters cover the structure with a deep blue; the lighting pulses as you enter the elevator. The floor is made out of a milky Plexiglas and uplit by a grid of Color Kinetics iColor Coves in a deep neon blue. As the doors shut (with appropriate Get Smart sound effects) the floor starts to “scan” you with a red chase until it reaches the third floor where it pulses in green while you unload into the Covers and Legends area.

In this area you are asked to choose a “cover.” Later, virtual border guards will quiz you and you must tell who you are, your birthplace and age, why you're traveling, the length of your visit. This room is primarily lit with circular white cold cathode tubes mounted above drop-ceiling panels. At the appropriate moment, show control automatically opens the doors into the Briefing Theatre and the cold cathode dims slightly to promote efficient crowd flow control. ETI worked closely with Northern Light Productions (producer of the museum's film content), ensuring that the timing of videos, doors, and elevators allowed for smooth movement through the space.

The Briefing Theatre details a spy's life, and reminds you that there are spies among us and that a good spy will never be recognized. As you exit the theatre, Sylvania fluorescent black lights mounted in the perimeter ceiling cove reveal a previously invisible detailed UV map of the world with all of the spy hot spots highlighted.

You then enter an area showing tools of the trade, such as bugs, cameras, satellite surveillance, lock-picking devices, and disguises. Curved perforated metal canopies, hung just under the exposed mechanicals on the ceiling, are highlighted by colored Krypton neon that draws the public through with a rolling wave motion, enforcing the dynamics of the venue.

Every 10 minutes, music cues the lights on a replica Aston Martin DB5, similar to the one James Bond totaled in the film Goldfinger. The car came from a collector in the UK and was fitted with all the toys: front machine guns, rotating license plate, automated armor plating, and wheel hub tire shredders. The lighting is tightly cued to the soundtrack. I programmed the Horizon Playback Controller, working closely with Arnold Tang, who programmed the main Alcorn McBride show controller. Working in advance, about 100 MIDI triggers were agreed upon to control the museum. It was to everyone's surprise that those 100 distinct go cues would accumulate into over 12,000 events every day.

Around the corner from the Bond car is a replica submarine bridge with touchscreen video displays showing techniques of sonar and underwater listening devices. Mather used Precision Projection Wavelights projectors to bathe the display in an underwater ripple effect. Further down the hall are historic displays, including a model of the Trojan Horse, ninja artifacts, and the history of ancient Chinese spies. Another heavily cued exhibit is the Library Object Theatre, which tells the story of early American spies. Here, various artifacts, including a genuine letter from George Washington, are highlighted by MR16s and AR111s mounted in 10 sections of LSI two-circuit track. These fixtures are the workhorses of the museum, appearing in almost every room.

In Behind Enemy Lines, displays show WWII spy tools and D-Day communication devices. Rosco I-Cue moving mirrors project ACL beams behind barn doors as people enter the room and the lights dim, creating the effect that Nazi soldiers are looking for you.

From there you enter The Bomb, focusing on the spy ring that provided the Soviets with the knowledge to build their own atomic weapons, giving rise to the Cold War. The cubic room's walls are made up of 1'-square tiles, with the gaps between them backlit by two colors of Legion dimmable fluorescents. Backlit wall boxes follow the narration, revealing people involved in the Manhattan Project and their connection to this dramatic story. The conclusion is an atomic explosion; an effect achieved by firing six 3kW Diversitronics strobes and crossfading from the white fluorescent light to a pulsing red grid. The sound, appropriately enough, is mostly through subwoofers mounted in the ceiling and automated floor shakers installed below your feet.

Leaving The Bomb, you go through the Fallout Shelter. Mather achieved a remarkably convincing effect by pulsing simple A-type light bulbs mounted in Pauluhn jelly-jar fixtures which Special FX dipped in GAM570 (Light Green Yellow). You pass by a clicking Geiger counter feeling quite contaminated.

Going downstairs you enter the remainder of the Cold War display, which includes images of the McCarthy Hearings and the Berlin Wall. This section is bleak, decked out in fences, barbed wire, and sandbags. ETC Source Four units, projecting “hardware cloth” gobos on the floor and softened “scratched” gobos on the walls gives a real sense of texture while Mee Fog water-based atmospherics complete the effect.

The Wilderness of Mirrors looks at spies who became double agents or moles and traded national secrets for money. The room is covered in angular reflective surfaces and mirrors hanging from the ceiling to create a disorienting effect. Triangle gobos in R79 (Bright Blue) bouncing off City Theatrical Beam Benders reinforce the mirrored design of the space.

The final exhibit features a mural titled Snakes and Dragons. It is meant to remind us of the relevance of spying today, when we're no longer fighting the single Dragon of Soviet Communism but many poisonous snakes, such as worldwide terrorist cells. A film shows images of the USS Cole and the World Trade Center. The Ops Center features a scrolling LED display giving up-to-the-minute news on spy-related stories going on around the world.

At first glance, the International Spy Museum may seem more like themed entertainment than a legitimate archive. The flicker of neon and moving lights and ample textures and shadows make it an exciting place to visit. Although it has enough flash and gadgets to keep adrenaline-crazed junkies amused, it effectively fosters an environment in which the history of espionage can be examined in a serious manner.

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