Washington’s secret museum that tourists can’t visit

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Hidden inside a nondescript building that serves as the headquarters of the US Secret Service in Washington, DC, is a museum most tourists will never visit.

“The majority of the audience will be employees, former employees, family, guests, dignitaries, and law enforcement,” says Mike Sampson, an archivist and historian with the U.S. Secret Service, adding that limited resources and security concerns explain the agency’s museum’s restricted access.

The one-room space features artifacts and replicas that showcase the history of the Secret Service. The agency may be best known for protecting US presidents, but its original mission was to combat financial fraud.

Fake equipment and fake $10 gold coins made of copper pennies on display at the United States Secret Service Museum.

Ironically, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the creation of the Secret Service just hours before he was killed.

On April 14, 1865, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, named Hugh McCulloch, went to President Lincoln and suggested that he set up an agency just to fight counterfeiting. At the time, a third of the currency in the United States during and after the Civil War was counterfeit,” says Jason Kendrick, also a historian and historian for the U.S. Secret Service. “So, on the same day, he gave a verbal warrant — he didn’t sign anything that would lead to Establishing this Secret Service already – he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.”

A US Secret Service jacket recovered after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

A US Secret Service jacket recovered after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

It wasn’t until 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, that the Secret Service was officially assigned to protect the president. But the service’s responsibilities had expanded before then—in part because the FBI and CIA (which serve both law enforcement and intelligence functions) had not yet been established.

“Land fraud, stamp fraud, scammers, smugglers,” says Kendrick. “There is a period where we investigate the Ku Klux Klan, and some counterintelligence during the Spanish American War, in World War I, and a little bit during World War II, even after the creation of the CIA. So, basically, in 1868, it was upgraded to any crime against the federal government.”

A window of the armored limousine that was hit by a bullet during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and the handgun used by would-be assassin John Hinckley.

A window of the armored limousine that was hit by a bullet during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and the handgun used by would-be assassin John Hinckley.

Some of the exhibits focus on imitation. Others illustrate the perils of presidential life, such as a window from an armored limousine that was shot during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Also on display is the handgun used during the 1975 attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in San Francisco.

Today, the service continues to protect heads of state, foreign dignitaries, and special events related to national security. Its clients are still tasked with protecting the US financial system, which includes investigating some cybercrimes. The agency’s Threat Assessment Center works with local partners nationwide to help combat school violence and other targeted attacks.

The U.S. Secret Service Museum is located within the agency's headquarters in Washington, DC.

The U.S. Secret Service Museum is located within the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

Carrying out these duties is sometimes very expensive. The museum’s Wall of Honor pays tribute to the 40 men and women who died in the line of duty.

We were also affected by terrorists, and we have artifacts here that recall the bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, in which we lost six members of our agency in the field office of the Mora Building in Oklahoma City,” Sampson says. We were also affected by 9/11. We lost a member of our agency, Special Officer Craig Miller… on September 11th, he was at the Second World Trade Center. [building] in New York. So again, it’s a nice area to honor those who died with respect.”

A piece of the World Trade Center is on display at the US Secret Service Museum in Washington, DC

A piece of the World Trade Center is on display at the US Secret Service Museum in Washington, DC

And that, after all, may be the point of having a museum that only a select few can see.

“The auditorium gives us an opportunity to reflect on the history of our agency, and also to show what we’re doing these days,” says Sampson. “We can get an idea, or even a sense, of how we were and how we’ve evolved as an agency, some of the things we’re doing today. But it also gives a reflection of how things were going at a point in time.”

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