And why not? Spend some time here and you can feel as if you’d been admitted to the backstage preparations for a magic show. The difference is that in espionage, life or death and the fate of nations are at stake, rather than whether a woman can be successfully sawed in half or an ace of spades pulled from a shuffled deck. These magicians weren’t performing; they were dueling.
Here, drawn from the immense private collection of the intelligence historian H. Keith Melton, and the collections of the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Reconnaissance Office, are objects ranging from a poisoned needle, hidden inside a coin, to a fragment of the United States Embassy in Moscow that the Soviets riddled with bugs during its construction in the 1980s; two floors were razed and rebuilt.
There is a K.G.B. model of the umbrella that injected a poison ricin pellet into the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov in 1978; a handmade pair of shoes made for a United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s that Czech intelligence officers bugged with a listening device in the heel; a Stasi-created molar that was hollowed out to allow microdots to be safely stored in a spy’s mouth; and a well-preserved rat with a Velcroed body cavity that was used by Americans in Moscow for exchanges of information without agents’ actually meeting. The rodent, treated with hot pepper sauce to discourage scavenging cats, was easily tossed from a passing car for these “dead drops.”
The gadgets here are full of concealments and misdirection; nothing is what it seems. And much of it is almost quaintly old-fashioned. There are some hints of technological experimentation: a Stasi attaché case fitted with an infrared flash camera that could take pictures in the dark, or the C.I.A. bug that was built inside a cinder block in the visitors’ area of a Soviet embassy and could drill its own listening hole.
But most of these objects, tools of the trade over a half-century, are not the stuff of the “Mission Impossible” franchise; they are almost all deliberately mundane. They are not meant to startle; they are meant to fade into the background. They work like tricks sold in a magic shop. And they must be used with similar skill.
Something else is similar: once explained, the magic is gone. The objects used in espionage can almost seem silly. Really! Grown people sprinkling dust (nitrophenylpentadienal) on objects to track the movements of whoever touched them? Using a hat, glasses and a fake mustache as a disguise? Employing a hollowed-out nickel to hide top-secret microfilm? All of espionage can easily seem like a kid’s game, except for the trails of blood and insight that are invariably left in its wake.
And this show, produced by Base Entertainment, contains more than enough to make it resemble a child’s game: interactive screens on which you can disguise a photo of yourself; kiosks where your voice can be distorted and filtered; a mist-filled dark room with shifting laser beams that challenge you to make your way across, without breaking the circuit. (A password-oriented interactive game is too lame for its climactic position in the exhibition.)
There are also larger objects here that reveal, more dramatically, that technological sophistication is not a requirement, nor is it something that necessarily increases over time. Next to a collapsible motor scooter with which Allied spies parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II is a saddle, draped with an Afghan blanket, that was used by a C.I.A. officer riding across the forbidding terrain during the first months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the objects selected by Mr. Melton — whose collection of over 9,000 spy devices, books and papers has also helped stock the International Spy Museum in Washington — are not presented simply for sensation’s sake. There are very few weapons here, aside from the ice-climbing ax that was brutally smashed into Trotsky’s skull in Mexico — and we see it mounted near his assassin’s bloodied eyeglasses.
Mr. Melton also has stories behind his acquisition of such objects, though his reluctance to share his methods in too much detail suggests a firsthand experience with the world he is documenting. (How did an original K.G.B. model of the bugged American Embassy get into his hands?)
What happens along the way is that we gain an appreciation for the magic as well as the method; we end up glimpsing what these ordinary objects actually accomplished and what was at stake when they were used. The show could have been stronger if that context had been made clearer, but even with its gadget-centered focus, we learn that this great bag of tricks was no mere game.
“Spy: The Secret World of Espionage” is on view through March 31, 2013, at Discovery Times Square, 226 West 44th Street; discoverytsx.com.
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