Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Classified past

The summer TV season is just around the corner, and I can’t wait. It’s a guilty pleasure that I don’t usually brag about to my academic colleagues, but I adore summer TV. Summer television, like beach reading, is supposed to be entertaining – romance and intrigue without the burden of a challenging plotline. For me, last summer’s dark horse winner on the television turned out to be USA’s Covert Affairs. I admit up front that the plot is ridiculous: I know that curators at the Smithsonian (the main character’s cover story) do not fly back and forth to the British Museum regularly, and I am skeptical that all the women at the CIA come to work dressed in cocktail attire, but the show hooked me in Episode 2 when the Agency had to grab a machine from the CIA Museum in order to decode information being transmitted through an old Cold War radio transmission station.

Ridiculous, right? Well, somewhere in Hollywood there is a historian with a sense of humor who is getting the facts (mostly) right. The CIA does have a museum, although I bet it is a stretch to believe that current intelligence officers are using its collections today for active assignments, right?

Actually, it is not a stretch at all. According to Museum officials, the Agency workforce does consult with the museum periodically on technical lessons learned from operational applications of some of the historical items held in the collection. Any current intelligence officer worth his or her salt knows the importance of learning from the past. What better place to do so than in the museum!

Ever since I learned about the CIA Museum, I’ve been intrigued. The museum is not open to the public (you need to be pre-screened to gain admittance to Langley, and even then you are under strict escort), yet it has a very high visitation level from CIA employees and dignitaries. Besides the problem of access, much of the museum’s collection is classified, which can complicate the exhibit design process. Who knew you needed government clearance to be a collections manager?

But the intrepid team at the CIA Museum is determined to reach the public. They are currently in the process of redesigning their website. They have partnered with other institutions and would like to develop traveling exhibits. They are working to draft a collections plan that conforms to American Association of Museum standards (too bad AAM doesn’t have a deaccessioning policy for classified objects). And of course, they are reaching out to couch potatoes like myself through popular television programs. Technically, that last bit isn’t true. It is the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs that liaises with the media. The CIA Museum does not unilaterally reach out to tv producers.

I love it when museums show up on TV (Bones, Warehouse 13, White Collar), but I wonder if museum professionals should be a bit more proactive in describing what we actually do. We all have such great jobs, and all of our cultural institutions have fabulous objects with wonderful, made for Hollywood stories. We just need to get our own story out. I propose that the National Council on Public History develop an “Ask the Public Historian” call center with a direct line to Hollywood so that we can do a bit of professional activism. Plus my mom would love it if I could win an Emmy.

The new season of Covert Affairs begins tonight.

~ Allison Marsh


  1. Ugh! I have to wait until it comes up on Hulu...I do love the 100% entertainment value of it though. Great show!

  2. Hollywood and humor? I'm not sure those two match.

    / Avy