My Trip to the National Postal Museum
How many Smithsonian Museums can you think of right now? I’ll give you a minute to think about it. Go ahead. Got it? So you’ve probably named all of the ones located on the Washington Mall, and maybe the National Portrait Gallery/American Art. At most, that’s only fourteen out of the eighteen Smithsonian Museums located in the DC Metro area. I can probably guess that you didn’t think of the National Postal Museum, or even better, that you didn’t know there even was one. Don’t worry about it, though; I didn’t know it existed until this past Friday, either.
Located in NW DC, in the old City Post Office building, the National Postal Museum was founded in 1993 when 100,000 sq. feet of the building were transformed into a museum from the “preservation, study and presentation of postal history and philately [stamp collecting].” Through 35,000 sq. feet of exhibition space, the National Postal Museum offers its visitors insight into the evolution of the postal service from its earliest iteration to the modern day in addition to a stamp collection of over 5.9 million items (an impressive number regardless of the type of item).
I have to admit, this didn’t sound like the most exciting museum to visit on a beautiful Friday, but my friends and I had some time to kill and it was close to their apartment. We walked into the National Postal Museum’s door around 12:00 PM on Friday afternoon and as we had joked about on the short walk over, were the only visitors visible on the first floor. Try going to any other Smithsonian at the same time and you’ll be greeted with lines to get through security and then at least 100 other people in the lobby. But I’ll take an empty museum over a crowded one any day.
The first exhibition we went into was the William H. Gross Stamp Galleries on the main floor. This exhibition consists of 12,000 sq. feet of gallery space which were constructed in 2012 as an addition to the original museum building. Because these were the newest galleries, they had the most in-gallery tech and, therefore, were the most engaging galleries I encountered during my visit.
Stamps are extremely light sensitive if you are hoping to preserve them because they are made of thin paper. There are stamps in the Stamp Galleries that are from the middle of the nineteenth century and some that are even earlier than that, making them challenging to display. How the Stamp Galleries dealt with that was by using motion sensors that activate the lighting that displays an old stamp. By doing this, these old, and very sensitive, stamps aren’t always being subjected to the damaging light needed for visitors to see them. This technology was actually a lot of fun to play with at the National Postal Museum because I couldn’t quite figure out where the sensor was, or how close I needed to be to the display case. I did spend some time, jumping around and moving very close and then backing away from these cases, much to my friends’ enjoyment, in order to turn the light on. While this might have been frustrating after a while, there were only about 4 cases that used this technology, keeping my antics on the fun side rather than exasperating.
Even cooler than the light sensors were the very large screens in the middle of the exhibition. These screens displayed a multitude of stamps that I could manually scroll through (I’m unsure if these were all of the stamps in the museum’s collection or just some that had been digitized). This was pretty cool in and of itself because I could click on any stamp on the screen to learn more about it and even zoom in on the stamp to better examine one section. These also allowed me to filter the stamps by date, state, theme, or any keyword I wanted. I could also click on any stamp and “Add It to My Collection” and then email my collection to myself. I would say it’s a similar practice to using the Pen at Cooper Hewitt to curate your own collection. These screens were large and intuitive enough that I saw a few younger children also playing with the screens to find stamps they liked.
What I honestly enjoyed the most out of the exhibition, however, wasn’t something educational. Located in the middle of the exhibition was a table with bins filled with loose stamps for visitors to sift through and start their own stamp collection. Also on the table was a screen that invited me to create my own stamp. On the left hand side were a variety of images such as flowers, animals, words, or shapes as well as a button saying “Take a Picture.” Growing up in the selfie era, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a stamp with my own face on it, especially if I looked really goofy. I got one of my friends to agree to my silliness and I pressed the button and was counted down to the flash going off 5 time (think old fashion photo booth). Because neither of us were fully prepared, the photos were definitely a little silly but we picked the best one and then were given the option to embellish the stamp however we wanted. After we edited our stamp, we were also given the option to send out stamp “Into the Past” and the computer altered the stamp into an old fashioned 5 cent stamp complete with a grainier version of our photo.
Just like the digital stamp collection, I was able to send the personalized stamps to myself via email. It’s a brilliant idea and way to engage visitors because it turns into a simple little memento of my trip that I was then able to upload to Instagram later in the day and it didn’t cost me anything. Instead of going to the gift shop and spending money on a pin that anyone else could own, I have a personal reminder of that trip to the National Postal Museum.
The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is just a small part of the National Postal Museum but it deftly reflects the ways in which technology can be used to preserve the collection, educate its visitors, and create a space for fun engagement with the content. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only for your own stamp selfie.