See Inside the Rarely Seen and Newly Reimagined CIA Museum

Off-limits to all but a few in-person visitors, the museum is starting to welcome the public, online at least

CIA Museum
The entrance to the CIA Museum in Langley, Virginia Courtesy of the CIA

The CIA Museum has always been closed to the public; only the agency’s employees, their family members and other government officials can visit. Most of us will never see it in person—but online, the museum is beginning to allow civilians a peek inside its vast collection.

This year, in honor of the agency’s 75th anniversary, the CIA updated and restructured the physical museum space. Now, it is publishing a series of YouTube videos, which walk viewers through some of the displays. The agency is also publicizing its existing online catalog, which contains a selection of the museum’s artifacts. 

The Debrief: Behind the Museum

The museum holds more than 3,500 items in total, according to Atlas Obscura’s Line Sidonie Talla Mafotsing. So far, the online catalog features about 200 artifacts, though the digitization process is ongoing. Items on display digitally include forged passports, counterfeit Nazi propaganda, Che Guevara’s flashlight, and a small portion of a written psychological analysis of Adolf Hitler, among many others.

Per NPR’s Greg Myre, one of the items on view in the physical museum is a replica of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the CIA found and killed Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, earlier this summer. Agents used the model house to brief President Joe Biden on the intelligence agency’s strategy.

The Debrief: Behind the Museum - The Coded Ceiling

The museum’s new ceiling is covered with black and white codes and ciphers. These aren’t just decorative—all of them can be broken—and they will be uploaded to the online catalog, as well.

But according to the Washington Post‘s Gillian Brockell, certain unflattering chapters from the CIA’s history are missing from the showcase. “The entire African continent is hardly mentioned, with no information on the CIA’s purported involvement in the 1961 assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, the 1962 arrest of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or other key events,” she writes. “Waterboarding also does not appear to be mentioned.”

Al-Qaida training manual
In 2001, U.S. intelligence officers picked up this al-Qaida training manual outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, which is now in the museum's collections. Courtesy of the CIA

The CIA Museum walks a fine line, maintaining secrecy while opening the organization up, even in a small way, to public view. So why do it at all?

“Every day, CIA officers help to shape the course of world events,” Toni Hiley, the museum’s former director, told Smithsonian magazine’s David Wise, who was given a private tour of the museum in 2014. “The CIA has a rich history, and our museum is where we touch that history.”

Biden's briefing folder
On display is the president's daily brief, which contains intelligence analysis on national security issues. Courtesy of the CIA

The digitalization efforts are another step toward that goal, says Gina Weinstein, the museum’s exhibition specialist, to Atlas Obscura. “Figuring out how we are able to … provide this history, this information and these artifacts to the public is important to us, because there are important stories to tell.”

Former CIA director William Colby first proposed the idea for a museum in 1972. Since then, the agency has moved forward with caution; the first exhibition didn’t open until 1991. Located in the George Bush Center for Intelligence in Langley, Virginia, often simply referred to as “Langley,” the museum is part of the CIA’s headquarters.

In 1980, CIA technical specialists created a fake movie production company as part of a plot to rescue six American diplomats in Tehran, Iran. The museum houses the artist’s concepts for the invented film. Courtesy of the CIA

The new virtual resources seem to be part of a larger effort to share, if only to a limited degree, what goes on at Langley. The agency also launched a podcast this year as part of the anniversary celebration.

“We do usually operate in the shadows, out of sight, out of mind,” William Burns, the CIA’s director, says in the first episode. “But I think it’s important to explain ourselves the best we can and to demystify a little bit of what we do.”

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