This hollow tooth once concealed a microdot containing sensitive information. Its on exhibit at Pacific Science Center through September of this year.
  • Courtesy Pacific Science Center
  • This hollow tooth once concealed a microdot containing sensitive information. It's on exhibit at Pacific Science Center through September of this year.

Tomorrow, Pacific Science Center launches their new exhibit Spy: The Secret World of Espionage. It's a collection of decommissioned artifacts from American spy history that are assembled into an overview of American espionage. I got to see the show yesterday in a press preview, and here are a few thoughts on the exhibit:

The Good: Some of the artifacts, from the CIA, the FBI, the National Reconnaissance Office, and spy collector H. Keith Melton, are undeniably cool: An umbrella that fired real poison pellets from its tip, tiny cameras that spies attached to homing pigeons in order to take aerial photographs of war zones, an Enigma machine, the cover of the Presidential Daily Brief, and the axe that killed Leon Trotsky. For older children, it's an informative and interesting exhibit, and some of the interactive elements are fun. There's one display, for example, where kids are encouraged to find all the hidden security cameras in a fake living room setting. There are voice-changing and disguise-making kiosks, and a hallway where kids can run through a smoky laser-light obstacle course like you always see in movies.

The Bad: The exhibit is about as jingoistic as you'd expect, offering some critical analysis of spies gone bad but not stepping too deeply into American espionage overreach. American spies are unquestionably the heroes here; if you have a problem with that, you'd be better off not visiting the exhibit at all.

Worst of all, as far as I saw, there isn't one word about NSA bulk metadata collection in the whole exhibit. This would have been a great opportunity for parents to discuss the NSA's transgressions with their children in a helpful, educational environment. There's a very solid discussion of video surveillance, for example, that I think presents the topic of the surveillance state in a simple, straightforward way. I walked through the exhibit expecting to see something about the NSA; I wound up, confused, standing in the middle of the gift shop. If you want to argue that museum exhibits shouldn't touch on contemporary issues, I'd argue with you on principle.

And the Spy exhibition features artifacts from the spy campaign featured in last year's Oscar-winning movie Argo, so the exhibit is clearly nimble enough to cover contemporary events when the contemporary events are uncontroversial. (In addition, I was disappointed to see that some displayed Jack Kirby concept art made for the Argo operation didn't credit Kirby at all.) I reached out to Pacific Science Center to ask why there was no mention of the NSA's data collection and Crystal Clarity, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Pacific Science Center responded:

The show is a collection of declassified artifacts and stories. The ARGO story is certainly current in popular culture because of the movie, but the story was declassified in the 1990s. While the exhibit doesn’t address current classified activities or some of the recent stories in the news, our hope is that the exhibit is a jumping off point for further conversations about intelligence gathering, issues such as the NSA surveillance, etc. We are hosting science cafes that address some of these more current issues in greater detail, and are hoping to host a lecture series in the fall to provide a forum for discussion about topics such as the ethics of espionage.

If Pacific Science Center lets me know when these promised events are happening, I'll let you know here on Slog.