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How Ideas Become Exhibits in the CIA Museum

The artifacts, photographs, and other objects in the CIA Museum are not just collector’s items; they illustrate stories that describe our history. How does an idea to tell a story become an exhibit in the CIA Museum and eventually in the CIA Museum online?

The museum’s most recent project, completed in 2011, celebrates the achievements of the OSS, CIA’s World War II predecessor.

Ideas can come from historians, may be inspired by recently declassified materials, or even from regular employees.  "The Agency workforce itself frequently provides the inspiration for exhibit themes.  Two great ideas from our colleagues inspired us to create the exhibit On the Front Lines: CIA in Afghanistan,” said Toni, the CIA Museum Director.

Each new exhibit can take up to two years to bring to completion.

A storyboard drawing for the OSS Gallery
A storyboard drawing for the OSS Gallery

  • First, museum historians and curators research and draft an exhibit treatment—a storyboard or script of the exhibit.
  • Then the collections manager and the archivist review the museum’s heritage assets—objects that tell stories about the Agency history, culture, and people—and identify pertinent artifacts, documents, and photographs that will best convey the story. Sometimes the museum staff determines additional items are needed to best represent a person, event, or Agency technology.
  • At this point, the museum director develops artistic concepts for the exhibit.
  • The museum staff, designers, and other stakeholders hold collaborative sessions to create a layout for the exhibit’s textual and visual stories.
  • A final list of artifacts and photos for the exhibit is compiled and text is crafted for every panel and label in the gallery.
  • Finally, an internal review process ensures that the exhibit content is unclassified.

Installing Exhibits

An aircraft style walkway in the OSS Gallery
Aircraft style walkway in OSS Gallery
With the exhibit concept and content finalized, graphics are produced, cases and gallery walls are constructed, and the interior design (such as the aircraft fuselage in the OSS Gallery pictured right) is completed. The museum’s newest galleries include interactive videos at kiosks to enhance the visitor experience. Many of these can be viewed on our YouTube page [external link disclaimer]. The final installation of a gallery takes several weeks.

Viewing Exhibits

The CIA Museum is open to the workforce and visitors who are at Headquarters on official business. "With more than half of the CIA's workforce having entered on duty since 11 September 2001, CIA’s history and museum programs provide institutional cohesion to communicate CIA’s corporate culture and identity during this demographic revolution,” Toni said.

The CIA Museum supports the Agency’s Open Government Plan-- which encourages engagement with the public to foster a broader understanding of the role intelligence plays in the national security process--by:

  • making collections available to the public through a robust presence on the
  • loaning historical artifacts to Presidential libraries and other publicly accessible museums to help educate the public about the role intelligence plays in our democracy.


Read more about the CIA Museum in past Featured Story articles.

The CIA Museum:  The People Behind the Magic

CIA Museum Unveils Newly Renovated OSS Gallery

Posted: Feb 28, 2013 08:15 AM
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2013 01:16 PM