Spy Museum Berlin
A relatively new museum in the heart of Berlin
that was inspired by the fact that during the Cold-War era this divided metropolis was indeed one of the world's foremost “cities of spies”. It covers all manner of aspects of espionage and surveillance from ancient beginnings to the present day, with a main focus on the Cold War
but also on the fictional secret service hero James Bond.
More background info:
The inspiration for the museum was obviously Berlin
history as the “capital city of espionage”, in which role it also featured in many a movie from that era (and beyond).
This role was owed in part to West Berlin's unique position as an “enclave” within the Eastern Bloc
(see also e.g. Allied Museum
!). This may have changed to quite some degree since the end of the Cold War, yet it took almost a quarter of a century for this spy city legacy to be commemorated and illustrated in a dedicated museum on the subject.
The museum opened under the same English name as this chapter's in September 2015. Less than a year later it was officially renamed “Deutsches Spionagemuseum” ('German Spy Museum'), but I'll stick to the original English name here, if simply for mnemonic reasons.
Apparently there have been some goings-on in the background (incl. insolvency of the original private company) and subsequent changes of personnel, roles and aims. But all that's not really of much concern for us here. Suffice it to say that the changes in policy at this museum also involved a lowering of the admission price by a third. So that has to be good news from a tourist's perspective.
The museum is striving to be absolutely state of the art in terms of museum presentation techniques and technology. And in many ways it succeeds in this, without that aspect being too dominant – there are still plenty of traditional artefact-plus-label-and-explanatory-text kinds of displays too.
Some of the hi-tech multimedia elements were developed with the help of the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, Austria
– one of the world's foremost institutions for modern/futuristic art and design.
One cutting-edge technology employed at the museum is the use of transparent LCD displays – i.e. you don't really see them when not in use and when in use it looks like their projected image is just hanging there in thin air. It's quite impressive when you see it for the first time.
The museum pledges to introduce yet more interactive elements in the future and also to concentrate more on its educational mission. However, it is clear that “edutainment” is more the key word here. And that's not a criticism, given how much the museum's subject matter lends itself to such an approach.
What there is to see: The spacious foyer of the museum doubles up as the book/gift shop and the reception desk. Once you've parted with your admission fee money you can start with the intro part of the exhibition on the ground floor.
The entire museum is bilingual, in German and English (with generally good translation quality). And you can also go on guided tours.
The first section covers the early history of espionage, going back to the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Ancient Roman empire. Different categories of espionage, spying, cryptography, surveillance and military intelligence gathering are also outlined, including the industrial/economics dimension. One concrete artefact on display here is a replica of the “cryptex” machine from the movie “The Da Vinci Code”.
The first hi-tech element is a large interactive screen subdivided into dozens of zones where visitors can simultaneously explore different aspects of spying through history by punching up images and videos and scrolling through on-screen texts (again all with a choice of language: DE or EN).
The main part of the exhibition, however, is upstairs on the first floor – which is reached via a staircase that is also used for quite psychedelic light displays.
Upstairs, the coverage of the history of espionage goes quickly from the hysteria about spies during WW1
(and the role of carrier pigeons in the Great War!) to the cryptology
achievements in (the run-up to) WWII
The Enigma machine
(and its predecessors and spin-offs) and the breaking of its code play a predictably prominent role here. The achievements of British mathematician Alan Turing
are duly acknowledged, though the museum makes a small mistake by calling his code-breaking machine “Turing Bomb”, when it should have been “Bombe
” (as it goes back to a Polish word – see under Bletchley Park
). Apart from an original Enigma, two more advanced machines developed from the Enigma principle are also on display, including a Soviet
At an associated interactive station you can try your own hand at code-breaking through the methods developed at Bletchley Park. Real cryptology nerds can probably have lots of fun here – the station was always busy during my visit.
What I found more interesting, though, was the array of spying equipment
on display in the following sections. There are some familiar objects such as buttonhole cameras and a glove pistol, but also more surprising artefacts (for instance fancy a spy-camera bra!). One remarkable object I had seen before at the Communism Museum
is the so-called “Photosnaiper
” camera that looks like a cross between a regular camera with a long telephoto lens and a machine gun handle!
A relatively large section chronicles the methods and equipment of what was the Stasi
in the GDR
– the most intrusive (mostly) internal spying and surveillance organization in history ever, in terms of the proportion of the population working for the organization. And much of their gear was also highly ingenious, such as hidden bugs, spy cameras and a portable machine for secretly opening letters.
The most stunning object in this context is the little green Trabbi car (nickname for the most widespread “Trabant” passenger car of the GDR). This specimen was equipped with infra-red cameras hidden in the door. These were used by the Stasi for stealthy “Observation” too.
Another infamous relic from the Stasi is a specimen of the 'scent samples
' collected in secret during interrogations on pieces of yellow cloth. These were then sealed in jars and tins and could later be used to get sniffer dogs to track down the “suspect” (see also Stasi Museum
The use of poison
in international spying and counter-intelligence operations is another topic in the exhibition. On display is, for instance, a replica of the umbrella
with which Bulgarian
dissident Georgi Markov
was assassinated in London
(presumably by the Bulgarian secret service and with the help of the KGB
) by means of a poison pellet injected into the victim's leg with such a specially adapted umbrella.
A more modern case of ingenious poisoning is the case of Alexander Litvinenko
, an ex-KGB man turned Kremlin-criticizing journalist who in 2006 died of radiation sickness brought about by the rare radioactive substance polonium
administered as the poison, also in London (see more under Highgate cemetery
Also covered are the stories of various notorious Cold-War
-era double agents
such as Harold “Kim” Philby, Rainer Rupp (alias “Topaz”), or Dmitri Polyakov.
One of the largest objects in the museum is a giant interactive screen
that is controlled by a smaller touchscreen which can be used to explore the locations of various places within Berlin
associated with the Berlin Wall
and the Cold War
. This too was always busy while I was there so I never got a chance to try it out myself.
Smaller interactive screen stations are dotted around throughout the exhibition where you can watch videos
and listen to interviews with experts
on the subjects covered by the museum. And this ranges right up to the present day and the role of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden
and his revelations about the US
secret intelligence service NSA
. The comments by some of the German secret service experts are quite sobering … but I won't give away any details here.
For those who like even more interactive play elements, there's the “laser labyrinth challenge”, an installation where participants have to try and work their way carefully through a maze of laser beams without touching any (as also seen in movies). I gave it a miss.
A large section at the rear of the main exhibition floor is dedicated not to real-world espionage but to the fictional world of secret agent movie hero James Bond. On display are film posters and various original props from the film sets, including the clothes and shoes of the two contrasting villain-assistants “Jaws” and “Nick Nack”, the former an over seven foot giant (2.17m) the latter a midget wearing children's sizes. Also on display are two plaster face casts of two of the most prominent actors ever to have played the Bond character: Sean Connery and Roger Moore. They look spookily like death masks …
In the very back of the exhibition is a kind of library with shelves stacked with all kinds of books and period magazines on the topics covered in the exhibition. This is just a mock library, though, just to illustrate how much has been written about this – but you can't actually take any volumes out.
The exhibition finishes with coverage of modern-day issues such as online security and mass data storage not just by state security agencies but also by companies such as Facebook and Google.
One station in the main exhibition also picks up one aspect of this: passwords and how safe they are. You can try it out directly on a computer running some hacking software. Don't do this is you're paranoid about Internet security! Every (fake) password I entered, using the common tips of using mixed random letters, numbers and special characters, all were “hacked” within less than a second. Whether that's real or just to scare visitors I don't know. But it does make you wonder …
All in all, this is a very entertaining and at times eye-opening museum. It caters both for those after solid historical information as well as those more into the edutainment side of things with interactive props to get your hands on. It certainly exceeded my own (initially somewhat reserved) expectations by far.
right in the heart of Berlin
, next door to Potsdamer Platz. Address: Leipziger Platz 9.
Access and costs: Quite easy to reach; not especially cheap, but not unreasonably so.
Details: The location of the museum is just a few steps from Potsdamer Platz, which is served by both several useful bus lines (200, M41, M48, M85) and the regional metro train (S-Bahn) lines S1/2/25 as well as the metro line U2. One of the entrances to the latter is actually right on Leipziger Platz just a few steps from the museum.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., last admission one hour before closing.
12 EUR (concessions: 8 EUR) [note: this is markedly less than the original entrance fee of 18 EUR during the initial 10 months after the museum's opening – see also background
Guided tours are available, on demand, usually on the hour, and cost an extra 8 EUR.
Time required: One to two hours is the “officially” recommended length of a visit, but if you want to read everything, listen to all the interviews and other material on the screens and seriously pursue all the interactive elements, you could probably spend an extra couple of hours here easily.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Physically the very closest other dark attraction nearby is actually right behind the building that the Spy Museum is housed in, but you'd have to walk all the way round via Potsdamer Platz to get to it: the Berlin Wall watchtower
For yet more see under Berlin
Combinations with non-dark destinations: One of modern Berlin's most iconic attractions is literally just round the corner: Potsdamer Platz with its ultra-modern architecture.
From here, other key attractions of Berlin are also within easy reach, such as the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden boulevard and the government quarter.
- Spy Museum 01 - early days
- Spy Museum 02 - stairs up to the main exhibition
- Spy Museum 03 - in the main exhibition
- Spy Museum 04 - Enigma machine
- Spy Museum 05 - more advanced cypher machine
- Spy Museum 06 - Cold-War-era spy equipment
- Spy Museum 07 - photo sniper camera
- Spy Museum 08 - miniature cameras
- Spy Museum 09 - GDR
- Spy Museum 10 - Stasi scent sample
- Spy Museum 11 - poison
- Spy Museum 12 - poison umbrella
- Spy Museum 13 - James Bond section
- Spy Museum 14 - 007 star masks
- Spy Museum 15 - original props
- Spy Museum 16 - XXXL and XXXS
- Spy Museum 17 - interactive map
- Spy Museum 18 - library
- Spy Museum 19 - Berlin Wall segments outside