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At some museums, you're now Exhibit A

To draw fresh crowds, installations offer hands-on interactivity that turns visitors into spies or CSI investigators.

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Our entry point is a bus depot. But first we must figure out how to get in. The phrase, "All is not what it seems," runs through the International Spy Museum here as a sort of informal mantra. It certainly applies to the act of opening the door to enter "Operation Spy," the five-year-old museum's newest exhibit.

Passports in hand, we do finally pass into fictitious Khandar, designed to be ambiguous in origin: The city could be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa or Asia. The smell of spices wafts through the air as we choose code names. Our group of spies select Falcon, Sniper, Snake, Queen Bee, and Cowboy. Being a reporter, I chose transparency as my cover and opt for the moniker Scoop. Our guide is a local actor.

Before long, we've climbed into a freight elevator, a motion simulator that creates the effect of a multistory drop. As "Operation Spy" continues, we'll crowd into the back of a surveillance van that brakes hard and bumps convincingly. During the next hour, our group of six will also work together to disarm surveillance cameras, crack a safe, and, ultimately, try to prevent a device that triggers a nuclear weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Not every team is successful.

In the era of movies with elaborate special effects and video games with graphics that cause players to marvel at the feeling of being inside the game, its no wonder museums are scrambling to keep up. For many, the answer to a more sophisticated audience and one with, perhaps, a shorter attention span is interactivity and immersion. Science and childrens museums have long trafficked in hands-on, sensory experiences. Now, with improved technology, the experiential exhibit is reaching new heights and turning up in a variety of venues.


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