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Cloaks and daggers in D.C.

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment and the International Spy Museum are two creepy, interesting alternatives to the Smithsonian.

July 05, 2009|Catharine Hamm

Spies and bad guys -- Washington is full of them. But you won't find them lurking in parks or waiting in the shower with a knife. Instead, they're concentrated in two newish if pricey museums in the District. If D.C. is on your itinerary this summer, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment and the International Spy Museum might provide a nice break from the heat and humidity, because they're almost guaranteed to give you chills. I visited the Spy Museum with a former CIA employee; I couldn't find a criminal to go with me to the Crime & Punishment Museum, so Spy might have benefited from the heightened creepy factor. Note to parents: Although children younger than 5 are admitted free, some of this might be too intense for them.

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VITALS

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CRIME & PUNISHMENT

575 7th St. N.W.; (202) 393-1099

www.crimemuseum.org

$19.95 for visitors 12 to 59; $14.95, 5 to 11

FUN FACTOR

*** (out of a possible 5)

The museum does honor law enforcement, but the accent is often on the grim and grisly. ("America's Most Wanted" often is filmed here, although John Walsh's filming schedule isn't made public.)

MISSTEPS

Exhibits weren't up-to-date on a visit in late March: the Chandra Levy exhibit didn't reflect the arrest warrant issued March 3. And the exhibit on medieval crime and punishment seemed a bit, well, tortured. Leave that to the Tower of London.

SCARIEST MOMENT

Looking again at modern-day serial killers such as Richard Ramirez, Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi. That funny feeling on your back? It's a little rivulet of sweat now running down your spine.

BEST FOR AGES

12 or older

SEE

The re-creation of Al Capone's plush jail cell. My house should be so nice.

SKIP

CSI Lab; TV already does it better.

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VITALS

INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM

800 F St. N.W.; (202) 393-7798; www.spymuseum.org.

$18 for visitors 12 to 65; $15 for those 5 to 11.

FUN FACTOR

**** (of a possible 5)

History through the prism of espionage and chicanery is a refreshing take on the same stuff that seemed stultifying in school.

MISSTEPS

Stories of such real-life scoundrels as Robert Hanssen, indicted in 2001, and Britain's Kim Philby are far more interesting than Hollywood's take on spooks. I was shaken, not stirred.

SCARIEST MOMENT

Listening to the story of how Aldrich Ames was captured. The double agent was arrested in '94; his betrayals led to the death of 10 CIA agents.

BEST FOR AGES

15 or older

SEE

The story of the tunnels under the Berlin Wall.

SKIP

None of it.

-- Catharine Hamm

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