Stories

New Virginia Hall Exhibit Brings Intelligence Art to Our Blind and Low Vision Officers

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.

Side-by-side photos of the new exhibit and a close-up of the original painting.

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.

Someone runs their hands over the exhibit. Silver nodules throughout act as touch-activated sensors to play an audio recording which further explains what the user is feeling.

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.

Videos

The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Virginia Hall Interactive Exhibit

The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Virginia Hall

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