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  • Ana Villegas

Fishes and Elephants, and Spies. Oh My!: The Most Absurd Artifacts in the CIA's Museum

By: Ana Villegas


Did you know that the CIA has a museum? The idea of a museum came from former CIA Executive Director William E. Colby, a very controversial figure in US history. The most interesting aspect of this “museum” was that it was never meant to have a public presence. The museum is located inside the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia which makes it impossible for the general public to have access. The only way to access the museum’s artifacts is through the virtual platform. This is mainly because of the shrouded secrecy in which the artifacts were created, used, and deployed in still-classified operations. The digital catalogue displays 211 artifacts. Each one is accompanied by up to three photographs with a small caption, a description of its significance to the CIA or its provenance history, measurements and material specifications, and occasionally a video with additional information. Here I chose to highlight three artifacts which I found the most interesting.

Figure 1. Former Director of the CIA, William E. Colby. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

First, there is Charlie the Fish. Charlie is a robotic fish which can be categorized as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) fish. Charlie was created under the CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs which was responsible for the development of spy technology and surveillance equipment. Charlie the Fish was one of their products. Charlie was created to traverse underwater environments and collect water samples for the CIA to test and report on. Most commonly, the samples would be tested for traces of nuclear run-off and certain biochemical agents. Charlie even had a partner, named Charlene. But apparently both Charlie and Charlene were never used operationally, or, if they were, that information is still classified. Other neat surveillance equipment featured include bodyworn cameras, pigeon cameras, and the Insectothopter.

Figure 2. Charlie the Fish. CIA Museum website.

Before you could send messages in an instant in the palm of your hand, the CIA had a pneumatic tube mail-delivery system to send messages throughout the main building. The entire system had thirty miles of tubing and 150 receiving/dispatching stations. On average it sent 40,000 messages and classified information per week and about 2,000,000 a year. When construction was completed, it was one of the world’s largest systems of its kind. Here is an example of one of the pneumatic tubes used by CIA employees. At the bottom of the tube you can see letters and numbers which were part of a three-ring system to direct the tube to the appropriate station. The first two were used to identify the station (i.e. F-R) and the last ring to identify the station number (i.e. 6). The system was operational from 1962 until 1989.

Figure 3. Pneumatic Tube. CIA Museum website.

The last artifact I am highlighting is the Elephant Counter. Operational during the Vietnam War, its function was for translation purposes. The CIA wanted to keep track of the people and supplies going up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail which connected North and South Vietnam. This device used pictograms such as elephants (common in Laos), motorcycles, troops, donkeys and many more. The pictograms were then transmitted to an airplane via a toggle switch so that people in the air could measure/identify the traffic on the trail. Despite the CIA’s goals, it was still very difficult to measure traffic and the data collected was often inaccurate.

Figure 4. Elephant Counter. CIA Museum website.

Figure 5. Map of the Ho Chi Minh Trail showing bases and supply routes during the Vietnam War, 1965-70. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 21, 2022.

When I first encountered the museum, I did not know what to expect. As an emerging museum professional who favours museums that function more like “forums”, this museum is reminiscent of the more traditional philosophy of “temples” or warehouses. Nevertheless, this museum is a great case study for in-depth analysis since it's representative of many themes that we encounter in our courses such as self-censorship, nationalism in museums, artifact digitization, and many more!


Further Reading

Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby by John Prados

Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001 by Milo Jones & Philippe Silberzahn

The CIA and the Politics of US Intelligence Reform by Brent Durbin

Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart


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