Sacred Ground of the Cold War: The International Spy Museum

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
John P. Baesler , Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI
This poster presentation interprets the International Spy Museum (ISM) in Washington, D.C., as a holy site of national security and a church of Cold War nostalgia. A relatively new addition to the capital’s wide array of official sites of memory, the ISM offers different packages of “spy tours” of Washington, meets-and-greets with former spies, interactive group adventures, and lastly the museum space itself, which leads the visitor through “the world’s largest” collection of espionage artifacts from the Cold War. In addition, the ISM participates in the think tank culture of the capital by sponsoring scholarly talks on issues of national security.
This presentation argues for an understanding of the ISM as “sacred”—as a place that seeks to enchant the visitor with sacred artifacts and secret knowledge from the “Golden Age” of the Cold War. Using a variety of images of museum exhibits, promotional material, and the site itself, it demonstrates how the museum makes Cold War history useful by making the recent past the object of adoration and nostalgic memory. It further analyzes how the ISM—a for-profit museum created by former CIA and KGB intelligence officials—balances the conflicting missions of entertainment and role-play on the one hand, and indoctrination and education on the other hand. Locating this conflict in the ISM illustrates a tension found often in the contemporary United States, namely a conflict between the corporate celebration of the modern subject as an autonomous consumer, and the need of the state to produce “security consciousness”—citizens who govern their own behavior. Put differently, my project asks how successfully the ISM reconciles recognition of American fears of a powerful government with its presentation of items of espionage as objects of adoration, even worship. While the ISM fervently advertises itself as a “family-friendly,” open, interactive museum, it simultaneously taunts the visitor with secrets it cannot give away and warns of the “dangerous world” of terrorism we live in today. The worlds of celebrity and mystery are thus powerfully entangled.
This presentation analyzes a public site dedicated to the commercial and political production of an attitude toward espionage as worthy of adoration and entitled to keep its secrets. It therefore opens a new field of investigation into modern American sacred institutions—namely the all-knowing, invisible national security state.
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