I Spy Dennis Barrie and the Art of Espionage

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • July, 2002

by Karen Feld

Though at one point known chiefly as “the Mapplethorpe guy,” Dennis Barrie is a celebrated museum director and cultural historian who launched his career at the Smithsonian Institution, where he became the Midwest director of the Archives of American Art. Later, while director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, he was indicted on obscenity charges for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, but he was acquitted. Barrie helped develop and open the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

As president of The Malrite Company, a consultancy that specializes in museum development and educational programs, he divides his time between its Cleveland headquarters and Washington, where he’s president of the advisory board of the new International Spy Museum. His wife, Kathleen Coakley, is vice president of exhibition development. The museum is scheduled to open July 19 in Washington, four blocks from the National Mall and across from the FBI building.

THE SHUTTLE SHEET: What is your part in the International Spy Museum?

DENNIS BARRIE: I’ve been the creative producer behind the project—responsible for selecting and assembling the team of designers, filmmakers and spies. The concept behind the creation of a museum of international espionage was Milton Maltz’s [a former National Security Agency employee and broadcasting mogul who is now chairman of The Malrite Company, which invested $37 million in the project], but I turned it into reality.

SS: What was the greatest challenge you faced in creating the Spy Museum?

DB: The idea is to immerse visitors in the spy’s world, but the challenge was dealing with espionage, which is known more as fiction and myth than as reality. In this country, we have an uneasiness with the activities of the intelligence world. My access to understanding this was through the actual intelligence officers and spies. [The] Rock and Roll [Hall of Fame and Museum] was in-your-face; this is hidden. We’re telling stories about what didn’t happen and people who weren’t there.

SS: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about spies?

DB: That they tend to be multidimensional people with very different interests, backgrounds, motivations and politics. They’re not easy to pigeonhole.

SS: You’ve had the courage to present controversial exhibits—this is a privately funded museum, but is there anything that the government may find objectionable here?

DB: We’ve tried to keep it apolitical. The museum is not about political history; it’s about the actions and motives of individuals. Some subjects remain controversial: Robert [Philip] Hanssen, the Rosenbergs and the attempts to assassinate Castro. We try to look at them factually: Can you be a Nazi and a great spy? Of course. Could you be a great Russian spy during the Cold War? Yes, in fact we have some working for us. We tell those stories.

800 F Street NW, 202-393-7798

The museum includes SPY CITY CAFÉ for quick bites in a spy-themed environment, open 8 a.m.–8 p.m. ZOLA is an elegant, sunny bar and restaurant with large glass windows, private loft-style event space and food by Red Sage; open 11:30 a.m.–midnight. And, of course, there’s a MUSEUM STORE with spy-related toys, disguise kits, collectibles and hundreds of books.

PARKING Almost impossible. Use Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station.

ADMISSION Adults, $11; reduced rates for seniors and children.

HOURS 10 a.m.–8 p.m. daily.

SS: You don’t appear to be a Washington bureaucrat or a spy; how do you fit into this politically correct city?

DB: You have to be true to your subject matter. Some people wanted us to do a “Happy Days” version of [the] Rock and Roll [museum]. That never existed in the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the same with the spy world. If you’re true to your subject matter, you can’t do the politically correct version.

SS: How many artifacts are in the museum?

DB: More than 1,100 objects from all over the world, some one-of-a-kind. Each of the devices is used to tell a story or stories of individuals.

SS: Tell us about one of your favorite sections of the museum.

DB: Code-breaking. We have an actual Enigma cipher machine, one of the few in existence. Once we could read the German codes, it changed the course of World War II. Codes came out of the Vietnam War, too. They were used by the prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton. The exhibits are interactive so visitors can do some decoding on their own.

SS: There’s a fascinating interactive section on disguises for surveillance and counterintelligence. Is disguise used extensively in espionage, or is that just Hollywood?

DB: It’s used routinely for personal protection. It might behoove you to look like an old man rather than a young woman. Disguise also buys you deniability. If you’re an American intelligence official, you can distance yourself from the U.S. government entirely.

SS: It’s a real coup that this museum is the first project approved by D.C. for its enterprise zone [an area set up by the government with tax-exempt bonds and other initiatives to stimulate private enterprise]. Why was the city willing to provide $6.9 million in Tax Increment Financing [repaid through sales tax revenue] and $15 million in tax-exempt enterprise zone bonds?

DB: This wasn’t a very good neighborhood when we began this project three years ago. It’s becoming a hot neighborhood. The city recognized that we were taking a gamble on whether visitors would come off the National Mall and whether Washingtonians would come to this area. We’re investing substantial funds and hope the museum can become self-sustaining.

SS: Did you make any changes in the museum exhibits after September 11?

DB: We tried to incorporate information that reflected that event throughout the museum. The final film deals with events of the 21st century. We were going to do a broader treatment that included cyber-espionage and industrial spying, but we wound up focusing on terrorism and how we deal with it in our very changed world.


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