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The CIA Museum: Looking Back to See the Future

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.

—Sir Winston Churchill

Central Intelligence Agency officers are reminded of the Agency’s past every time they walk through the halls of Headquarters in McLean, Va. One CIA institution shines a light on the past to illuminate the future: the CIA Museum, under the aegis of the Center for the Study of Intelligence.


Mission Focused

“We’re here to inform, instruct and inspire the operational mission,” said CIA Museum Curator Toni Hiley.Inform Instruct Inspire

First and foremost, the CIA Museum is geared toward supporting the workforce in its training, operational and recruitment missions.

In 1952, Sherman Kent—a former member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the head of the Office of National Estimates— said:

“In my view, the only reason for reconstructing the history of a government agency is to further the operational efficiency of that agency. This cannot be history for history’s sake. It must be history for the improvement of today’s and tomorrow’s operations.”

Hiley emphasizes using a past artifact that might be the exemplar in that particular field to build new capabilities.

“If the Directorate of Science & Technology (DS&T) wanted to look back and see how a certain technology was used, we might have the only Agency artifact that could be useful,” she said. “We can make the technical lessons learned—what worked and what didn’t—available. The current initiative doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”


Share the Wealth

The CIA Museum also reaches out to other members of the Intelligence Community.

“We brief the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of State, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and many other members of the Intelligence Community,” Hiley said. “The CIA Museum has been a benchmark for other agencies that have seen what we’ve done in a building that was not meant be a museum and how we’ve created education exhibits to ensure that our history remains accessible to our workforce and visitors.”

Going beyond the Intelligence Community, the CIA Museum outreaches to:

  • Presidential Libraries
  • museums—federal and private
  • historical societies and associations
  • collectors and donors.

“In 2002, we collaborated with the Reagan Presidential Library and fielded 200 artifacts for an exhibit about intelligence as a presidential decision-making tool,” Hiley said. “About 93,000 people saw our exhibit. It received worldwide coverage, even in the former Soviet Union.”

The CIA Museum has also loaned an artifact to the Newseum in support of its FBI exhibit. One of the pigeon cameras currently resides in a military museum in the Netherlands.

“We look for opportunities to collaborate with national museums in order to tell the story of the role of intelligence in democracy,” Hiley said. “The role of intelligence in a democracy is something that the American people should have a better understanding of and the Agency is best suited to share the story.”



The CIA Museum was created in 1972—the Agency’s 25th anniversary—at the request of the Executive Director William Colby. He sent a memo to the Fine Arts Commission and the Historical Intelligence Collection (HIC) curator to look into the possibility of establishing a “modest little museum.”

Walter Pforzheimer, the HIC curator at the time, asked the leaders of the Agency’s directorates to identify any items of historical importance.

“It was this little nugget of a collection that was held for many years within the HIC,” said Hiley.

In the mid-1980s, the HIC curator lobbied for a formal museum space in the New Headquarters Building. The museum was allotted 400 square feet to start with and the museum curator position was established.


Growing Pains

Cold War MuseumThe CIA Museum had a growth spurt in 1997 when the exhibits expanded again with the 50th anniversary of the Agency; during this time the Cold War Gallery was created.

The staff of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, working in collaboration with collector and historian H. Keith Melton, established this exhibit. It showcases some of Melton’s 6,000 clandestine espionage artifacts from the United States, the former Soviet Union, and East Germany. These artifacts are currently on loan by Melton.

OSS Museum

The next addition to the museum was the OSS Gallery, which was added in 2002 for the 60th anniversary of the OSS. The OSS Gallery features General Donovan’s World War II accoutrements.

“We wanted an exhibit that would connect the workforce with the “daring-do” of the 13,000 men and women who served under General Donovan during WWII in the field of intelligence for the Office of Strategic Services,” Hiley said.

For more than 50 years, the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) has informed US presidents and other policymakers about what’s going on in theworld around them. To honor the DI’s 50th anniversary, the CIA Museum established a DI exhibit in 2002. At the time, the DI Gallery was the only exhibit on intelligence analysis in the country.

The Directorate of Science & Technology also established an exhibit commemorating its 40th anniversary in 2003. This gallery provides a glimpse into the secret world where such innovative devices as the insectothopter were developed.

As part of the Agency’s 60th anniversary in 2007, the Afghan exhibit was established. The exhibit provides a look at how the Agency’s efforts during Operation Enduring Freedom parallel the history of the OSS during World War II.

“As I was interviewing many of the Agency officers who were first on the ground, the leader of the first paramilitary team in Afghanistan commented that he and his officers felt just like the Jedburghs of World War II as they flew in behind enemy lines,” said Hiley. “This gave us the concept for the exhibit—the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

To illustrate this, OSS artifacts are place next to current day artifacts for comparison. A World War II welbike (a collapsible motorcycle that fit into a standard parachute canister) is displayed next to an Uzbek saddle similar to one used by CIA’s paramilitary teams while riding with indigenous forces in Afghanistan to demonstrate unusual means of field-expedient transportation.

Since its inception in 1972, the CIA Museum has grown from 400 square feet to 11,000 square feet. The original collection has amassed more than 6,000 artifacts. Only 10 percent of these artifacts are on display at any given time. The museum also comprises a large classified collection, but only unclassified items can be displayed in the exhibits at Headquarters.


Favorite Finds

Many treasures can be found among the unclassified items on display at the CIA Museum. The insectothopter is one of the favorite artifacts on exhibit. It was developed as a listening device that would be flown to the vicinity of its target. In other words, insectothopter could be thought of as a bug that was a bug. Although it was never used operationally, it was first in flight for an insect-sized machine.Insectothopter

“The insectothopter confirms to a lot of people the creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that CIA uses to create technology firsts,” Hiley said. “That was created more than 30 years ago. Imagine what capabilities we must have now.”

Some Civil War minié balls found during the construction of the Original Headquarters Building represent the oldest artifacts in the museum’s collection.

“Not many people know that the CIA compound is located on property that included two Civil War camps—Camp Griffin and Camp Pierpont,” Hiley said.

The minié balls and their story is yet another example of how the CIA Museum is using the past to inspire the future.


A V.I.P. Tour

Since the CIA Museum is located at CIA Headquarters it is not open to the public. However, the public can catch a glimpse of the amazing artifacts the museum holds by taking a virtual tour of the museum.


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Posted: Nov 20, 2008 12:17 PM
Last Updated: Mar 07, 2014 01:06 PM