Jewish World Review July 22, 2002 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5762

Sharon Otterman

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New museum brings espionage to life | WASHINGTON (UPI) Jonna Mendez can't reveal a lot about what she learned while inside the world of espionage.

When she was the Chief of Disguise at the Central Intelligence Agency, Mendez, now 57, was called up to the White House to show the president the latest in physical transformation technology.

It was the early 1990s, and as she stood in the center of a room, she instantly transformed her appearance to the point that George Bush walked all the way around her, as if to see if there were any strings.

Five years later, the White House photographer sent Mendez a picture of the important moment -- with all the details of her appearance air-brushed out. "It was so secret that they didn't even want me to have a copy," she said Friday in Washington. Then she stopped herself. "I can't say more than that. It's classified."

What she can share, she's put into the new International Spy Museum, which opened Friday in downtown Washington. Mendez designed the disguise exhibit at the interactive new museum, which shows photos of a female office worker transformed through Hollywood-style make up into a male homeless person. But her craft isn't just for stage, she explained.

"In James Bond movies, everything gets shot up or blown up in the end. That's not what it is really about. What we would say is that in a successful espionage mission, there shouldn't even be a ripple in the water. That way, you can rob the bank, and then go back, and rob it again," she said.

The disguise exhibit takes up only a corner of the new museum. There are videos about spying, historical displays about Cold War and Civil War espionage, and an Aston Martin just like -- you guessed it -- the one used in the 1964 James Bond film, "Goldfinger." But the highlight of the museum is the fascinating, if somewhat limited, array of objects that were actually used by spies.

There's a buttonhole camera, fitted into a wool coat used by the KGB in the 1970s. There's the tear gas pen carried by CIA agents in the late 1940s. There's a tobacco pipe pistol held by British intelligence officers in the 1950s to shoot at close range.

Everything is a bit rusted and banged up, because most of the dozens of artifacts came from the personal collections of spies. In some cases, said the museum's president, Dennis Barrie, the American made objects were captured by KGB and other intelligence forces and then sold to the museum by former agents.

"Most of the objects come from personal collections," Barrie explained, "but some of it, believe it or not, came from E-Bay."

Who owned what, and how it ended up in the museum, is not listed on the museum displays. In part, that's to protect people's identities, Barrie said.

The Spy Museum is a for-profit venture, developed by the Malrite Company, the same group that designed the Rock n' Roll museum in Cleveland. It cost $40 million to complete, about $15 million of which came in a package of loans and tax relief from the city of Washington, Barrie said. At the formal ribbon cutting ceremony Friday, Mayor Anthony Williams said that the city invested in the project because it believes it will be a boon to the redevelopment of the downtown area.

At $11 an adult, and $8 a child, the museum is not cheap for visitors. Interestingly, however, people who work for the military or the intelligence community only have to pay $9. The museum hopes to break even in about three years, assuming 500,000 people a year trek the few blocks from the Smithsonian mall to get there, Barrie said.

Yesterday, the cost of admission didn't seem much of a drawback. Lines stretched around the block. Some were just tourists interested in spies. Others had more of a personal stake.

One woman was busy showing her young son a display of listening devices. "I came here to find out what my parents did for a living," she told this reporter. The woman, who identified herself only as Christina, said she thought as a child that her parents worked for the State Department. Even now that they are retired, she said, they still won't reveal details about their lives as spies.

It's that kind of mystery that the developers of the museum seemed to want to tap into, and so far, it seems to be working. David Glass, a 14-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, looked impressed.

"I figured a lot of this spy stuff was real, but I didn't know all of it was," he said.

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