Over the long history of intelligence operations, there are few individual stories more compelling than that of Virginia Hall. The Baltimore, Maryland native got her first taste of clandestine operations in World War II, following the fall of France to Axis forces in 1940. She spent the war in occupied territory as an operative with Britain’s Special Operations Executive and later with CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During her time with the OSS, she was essential to resistance fighters after famously evading capture through the Pyrenees Mountains. A feat that is made all the more impressive by the fact that she did so on just one leg.
The story of the Limping Lady, so nicknamed because of a wooden leg she wore after losing her own leg in a hunting accident, is taking on a new life for new audiences at CIA. Working with a company that specializes in bringing art and history to blind and low vision audiences, the CIA Museum staff commissioned a 3D recreation of one of our Intelligence Art Collection’s most famous pieces: Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir. The painting, completed in 2006 by artist Jeffrey Bass, features Virginia Hall in the early morning hours, operating a radio powered by a makeshift generator made from a bicycle frame.
The first of its kind at CIA, this new exhibit is reflective of the Agency’s broad commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Sitting on a tabletop underneath the painting, this accessible ‘painting’ is 3D printed with texture and depth, allowing the blind or visually-impaired to feel the painting. Using their hands, they can run their fingers over the scene, feeling small details such as hair and floorboard grain with incredible accuracy. Small tactile sensors interspersed throughout the painting trigger audio recordings that further explain what is depicted in the image; and buttons along the base explain Hall’s history as well as how best to experience the exhibit.
Officers from the CIA Museum took great care to provide historical accuracy and nuance to the audio recordings, enlisting the help of retired CIA officers to recreate the exhibit’s Morse code soundbites on an actual WWII-area radio. In true CIA fashion, those retirees embedded a hidden message in the code, creating somewhat of a stir among the CIA code-breaking community. The museum also leaned on the expertise of our officers who are fluent in French and German to include foreign languages in the exhibit, further contributing to a rich, immersive audio experience.
The museum unveiled the new exhibit on June 2, 2021. Working with blind and low vision officers from CIA’s Wayfinders resource group, which advises CIA on matters concerning accessibility and equal opportunity for officers with disabilities, the neurodiverse, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, , the museum crafted an experience that allows the story and intrigue of Virginia Hall to reach new audiences in ways that it never has before.
To learn more about the original painting, Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir, by artist Jeffrey Bass, check out this article. If you’re interested in learning more about all of the paintings in CIA’s Intelligence Art Collection, check out this 2017 publication, The Art of Intelligence.
The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Virginia Hall Interactive Exhibit
The CIA Museum is committed to providing access to our history in as many ways as possible, so that our officers and our partners can learn about our mission and our people, amazing people like Virginia Hall.
This tactile exhibit, a first of its kind here at CIA is a 3D rendering of our painting “Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir” by artist Jeffrey Bass.
The painting depicts Virginia Hall sending a radio transmission from a barn in occupied France during WW2.
Her prostatic leg “Cuthbert” as she called it, is shown near her radio.
The CIA wanted to bring this painting to life for our officers or visitors who have low-sight or who are blind.
By working with the company 3D Photoworks we were able to create a 3D replica of the painting, where you actually set off sensors and hear audio descriptions and sound effects over the exact piece of the painting you’re now feeling. Shown here, Virginia Hall wears a high-top leather shoe that’s laced.. Buttons at the bottom of the painting explain how to use the tactile exhibit and give in-depth audio information about Virginia Hall’s early life, her service during WW2, her post-war life, and a detailed description of the painting. Used to transmit Virginia Hall’s messages in Morse code.
Our art normally has written labels people can see and read, but this interactive allows people with low or no sight the same opportunity to learn about Virginia Hall and this piece of art, though all of our users get more details now than they would from a label.
Being the CIA, we couldn’t just settle for buying audio of a radio transmission off the internet, so we reached out to former Office of Technical Service Officers who volunteered their time to actually recreate a transmission on a WW2 era radio. As she transmits her Morse code message to London….
Virginia Hall sent 37 messages from occupied France while serving with the OSS, this was an incredibly dangerous job, but just one of many dangerous jobs she did not just for the OSS, but for the SOE and the CIA.
She was chosen to be our first accessible painting for her bravery, her service, and because she’s an inspiration to those who have overcome challenges in life.
The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Virginia Hall
The CIA has officers whose stories sound more like they’re from a superhero movie, but here at CIA we have a saying, we’re just ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
One of our officers who did extraordinary things was Virginia Hall, the most highly decorated female civilian of World War II. This Distinguished Service Cross right here is how she got that distinction. Hall was born in Maryland but while in London she was recruited by the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which was essentially the same as the OSS here in the United States. They sent her over undercover as an American journalist and she went into France to try to set up assets and informants and get information. She also helped down pilots get out of France and back to the UK.
She unfortunately became one of the most wanted people in all of France and so she had to escape, she hiked through the Pyrenees and into Spain. Once in Spain she was unfortunately arrested, but as soon as she was freed she went back to the SOE and asked to return to France to do more work. They said this was far too dangerous and so she quit and she joined the OSS here in the United States.
We sent her in, but we didn’t send her in as just Virginia Hall knowing that she was wanted. We sent her in disguise as an old woman. Hall spoke French and German fluently, so while over there she was able to listen in on the Nazi’s plans. She also would scout locations for major drops, things like supplies and personnel. She scouted locations for sabotage missions, so blowing up railroad tracks and roads to cut off the Nazi supplies. She also had over fifteen hundred French resistance forces fighting under her leadership and most importantly she sent radio transmissions which was one of the most dangerous things you could do in France at the time.
She did all of these extraordinary things, while being a woman and having a prosthetic leg.