For Your Eyes Only

Keith Melton’s museum contains the finest collection of espionage paraphernalia anywhere—and it’s so secret we can’t even tell you where it’s located

International Spy Museum
International Spy Museum Wikimedia Commons

Keith Melton has gone to considerable trouble to obtain objects for his unusual collection. He once smuggled a small item out of the Soviet Union in his cheek. Another time he bought a submarine. The items have come from scholars, retired intelligence personnel and shady characters.

When Melton started collecting 30 years ago, there was no facility in which espionage artifacts were studied and archived. "I felt," explains Melton, "that these items would not only be lost but the stories of the incredible people who developed them and used them would never be told, because of the necessary requirements of secrecy." On display are more than 2,000 artifacts from his 7,000-piece collection. He also owns some 6,500 books and 30,000 photographs. Taken together these items paint a picture of the evolution of spy tradecraft, a furious cat-and-mouse game of technological innovation, deceit and stealth.

Melton's collection includes hundreds of dead drops, such as a stone and a bolt that contain hollowed out centers. He also owns numerous concealment devices, such as a World War I-era glass eye, brown with painstakingly painted blood vessels, which could conceivably have hidden a small roster of spies. And all sorts of clandestine cameras, spy radios and listening devices fill his display cases. Surprisingly, there are few guns. "Intelligence ends when you pick up a gun," Melton says. "James Bond in the real world of espionage wouldn't survive four minutes." Recruiting moles and gathering intelligence information, not seduction and assassination, are the tasks of the true spy. "Spies don't kill spies."

Spy Museums Not Undercover

Top secret clearance won’t be necessary to visit the following organizations devoted to tradecraft: the International Spy Museum opens next spring in Washington, D.C.; the Smithsonian-affiliated Cold War Museum, although yet to find a permanent site, offers half-day spy tours to espionage hot spots in Washington (703-273-2381); the National Cryptologic Museum (301-688-5849) in Fort Meade, Maryland, is dedicated to the history of American cipher and code craft; the Allied Museum in Berlin contains many artifacts from the Cold War, including a guardhouse from the Checkpoint Charlie border.

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