Stamps, Stamps, Stamps

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.

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One of the Display Cases Using Motion Detection to Preserve old Stamps

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.

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Touch Screen to Create Digital Stamp collection

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.

 

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My Stamp Selfie
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Audio Guides as Visual Aides

In my Museum Education class this week, we discussed museum accessibility and what institutions are, or are not, doing in order to provide experiences for people of all abilities. Our class discussion was focused mainly on what the Capitol Building Visitor Center does in order to accommodate in a building that cannot be drastically altered because of its historical significance. What we learned was that there are two different tours, one for able visitors and another for disabled, that don’t necessarily see the same parts of the building. This is problematic in its own right, and well worth its own post but that isn’t my focus this week. While this was a truly enlightening conversation, it got me thinking about how museums are using technology to facilitate positive visitor experiences for disabled visitors.

Naturally, I went to Twitter with the hashtag #musetech so see what the museum community was talking about and came across a tweet from The Andy Warhol Museum located in Pittsburgh, PA. The tweet was a link to their latest blog post publicizing the launch of their new audio guide The Warhol: Out Loud. You’re probably aware that just about every museum offers an audio guide and if you’ve used one recently it probably wasn’t very exciting. So what makes this audio guide different? Well, it was designed specifically for blind and other visually impaired visitors.

The blog post explains that the production of this app was “truly the result of working directly with users, employing user-centered design and agile development processes to shape the final product.” As discussed in the post, as well as the video accompanying this post, the team in charge of creating Out Loud went straight to their visitorship to gain their perspective on what can strengthen a visitor experience. Once there was a prototype, or an idea, it was run by visually impaired visitors again and the feedback was taken into direct consideration on whether to continue with the idea, or scrap it all together. It was through this process, as well as testing the app at an Accessibility Meetup and the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s commitment to being an inclusive and accessible space is evident in the creation of Out Loud because while it was created with the visually impaired in mind, its an app that can enhance any visitor experience. After reading this blog post, I immediately went and downloaded the app to see just what it had to offer. My first impressions have been positive ones. The app has the ability to pinpoint your location within the museum and bring the audio guides up for the works near you. Considering I am writing this from DC, not Pittsburgh, I can’t test the accuracy of this technology but if it works it’s an incredible way to personalize the audio guide. One of the downsides to the traditional audio guide is that it has either a set course for your visit or you have to constantly keep pressing buttons to listen. What this GPS tracking within the museum allows is the fluidity of movement through the gallery however you chose.

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Setting up the Near Me function on The Warhol: Out Loud

Out Loud has organized the audio guide into Stories, done thematically rather than chronologically. Within each Story are multiple audio files, and once you click on the Story all of the audio files will play automatically. From what I can tell, each Story is told by a different person, either with a connection to the museum or Andy Warhol himself. By using a variety of voices, Out Loud is able to give multiple perspectives on Warhol’s life and work in a way that can connect to the widest audience.

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The Stories on The Warhol: Out Loud

In addition to traditional background information, Out Loud includes descriptions of the Tactile Reproductions in the museum. These Reproductions are meant for the visually impaired so they can feel Warhol’s work, another wonderful use of technology to make the museum more accessible. The Out Loud Stories for the Reproductions offer a guided experience as the visitor is invited to move their hand across the Reproduction as well as a visual description of the primary work. The guided experience plays first and then it is followed by the visual description, allowing the visitor to feel what the visual description later describes. This method allows the visitor to connect more deeply with the work because they have felt the lines of the male figure in Reclining Male Torso even if they cannot see them. Within each Story are the transcriptions of the audio files, offering another way to experience the information available in the app.

The Warhol: Out Loud app has taken into consideration the needs and desires of often overlooked museum visitors without segregating them into a separate group. This app, available on iPhones and for rent at the museum, enables visually impaired visitors to have “a full and independent experience at the museum” without pointing them out as separate or different. I cannot wait to make a trip to Pittsburgh and test out The Warhol: Out Loud app on site. Even though it’s only in its early stages, I can see this having very positive effects on the museum’s visitor experience.

One Touch Screen Too Many

 

This past Thursday my friend and I decided to visit the National Museum of the American Indian  (NMAI) with the goal of playing with as much in-gallery technology as possible. Neither of us had been to NMAI before so we weren’t sure what to expect, or even what technology would be available to us. Luckily for us, the museum was relatively empty on Thursday, perhaps due to the all-day rain or because it was the middle of the day on Thursday, but whatever the cause it meant my friend and I could take as much time with our finds as we wanted.

 

For those who haven’t visited the NMAI at all, or it’s been a while, let me refresh your memory on the layout. The visit actually begins on the fourth floor and you slowly work your way down to the final galleries on the second floor. On the fourth floor, before you even enter the first official gallery space, you encounter a massive glass case that is filled with a variety of objects, each depicting an animal in some way. In front of the cabinets are small kiosks that allow visitors to click on the picture of an object in the cabinet, learn its origin, date of creation, and material as well as zoom in on the object to see it up close.  I was immediately excited about this, hoping to gain some insight into what exactly the object meant to its perspective culture, and also to have the ability to play the first touch screen I found.

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A close up of Animal Artifact Kiosk

I have to admit, however, I was a little disappointed by these animal kiosks. More often than not, there was no explanation of the objects cultural importance. So basically all the kiosks allowed us to do was zoom in and see details. While that is valuable in its own right since some of the objects were very small, I instantly craved more information. In addition, where there were opportunities to rotate an image, I found I had a difficult time getting the touch screen to rotate the image.

 

More frustrating than the temperamental touch screen were the automated drawers in those glass cabinets. Above the drawers was a sign that read “Pull Gently to Open, Push Gently to Close.” Sounds simple enough, right? Well turns out, it was not so simple. The drawers opened easily enough, allowing my friend and I to look at some carved pipes, but after about ten seconds the drawer would automatically close, without even the slightest nudge from us. It was incredibly frustrating to have to keep reopening drawers only to get a quick look before the drawer closed itself again. I understand that from a practical standpoint, the automatically closing drawers make sense. It alleviates the problem of people continually leaving drawers open after looking at their contents, but the timing definitely needs an adjustment. In addition, not all drawers functioned like they should have. That was actually a blessing for my friend and I, but consistency is important too. If a museum is going to insist on motorized drawers, make sure all of them going work correctly.

 

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Motorized Drawer at National Museum of the American Indian

Once we finally moved into the galleries, drawers and stand alone kiosks made way for giant touch screens. The first gallery space Our Universes actually did not contain any touch screens which made the space, at least for me, a little boring. I was fascinated by the different cultures and their understanding of their worlds, but moving offshoot to offshoot eventually got a little monotonous. It was in many ways more of a traditional gallery viewing experience, but because of that first taste of technology I was desiring something similar throughout the rest of the museum.

 

Much to my happiness, there were touch screens in the Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations gallery. This screen was different from the kiosks; it was a lot larger for one, and it was pushed up against a wall rather than standing free in the middle of the gallery. Instead of just presenting information like a wall text, as the kiosk did, this screen presented its information like a game. The goal of the game was to decide which culture practiced what ritual during a treaty, such as smoking a pipe, singing your name, or sharing a meal. Each ritual had a little medallion that you dragged to the right culture (American Indian, American, or Both). My friend and I had a great time deciding where each ritual went and then when we matched them all correctly, we read the details for each.

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The Rules and Rituals Touch Screen

The next in gallery technology that we encountered in the Nation to Nation gallery was another touch screen which focused on the relocation of American Indians throughout the United States. This touch screen allowed visitors to select a historical person and read their story. The stories were told through drawings like a story book and I was able to scroll across the screen to continue the story. This touch screen worked so well that my friend and I spent at least 15 minutes looking at the various stories and swiping left and right to scroll across the screen. As frustrating as the automatic drawers were, this screen was extremely user friendly and responsive which enhanced our learning experience.

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Home Screen of the Relocation Touch Screen
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The Relocation Story of John Ridge

 

 

The last gallery my friend and I explored was on the third floor and was a special exhibition titled The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.  As I came to expect, there were two different touch screens in the exhibition. One was a game where we were supposed to run messengers along the Inka roads by drawing paths between two cities. The premise was easy enough, but I found it rather difficult to trace the path in order to send the messenger. No matter how many times I ran my finger across the roads, the screen wouldn’t recognize the path I drew. My friend, on the other hand, had no problem with the screen. For whatever reason, the screen did not seem to recognize my finger long enough to work.

 

The final screen we encountered was the largest, by far.  It was a table sized screen that displayed the ancient city of Cuzco. It was immediately enticing to play with as it’s purpose was not entirely clear, and I wanted to find out what it did. Turns out, the screen allowed me to click on different parts of the city as well as different land marks, and gain more information about them while also looking at their relationship to the rest of the city.

 

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Ancient Cuzco Touch Screen

 

While this was fun for the first few minutes, I became disenchanted pretty quickly. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the screen, it worked really well actually and was very responsive to my touch, but I think I became “touch-screened out” by this point in my visit. I had seen so many touch screens after two hours inside NMAI and although they each had a different purpose they had sort of lost their appeal. I wanted something else to do in the gallery.

 

I understand that touch screens are an easy way to engage the visitor and they offer various ways to share information. They are clearly becoming a staple in museums, and perhaps even expected at this point. I can’t help but wonder, however, if they are a cop out for museums; that they are the quick and easy answer to giving museum visitors the in-gallery technology they want. How many touch screens does it take before they loose their magic? For me it was five.

Let’s Get Digital?

When I think about museums, I don’t typically think about all of the digital technology that creates the most memorable experience. There are so many aspects that are taken for granted when the modern visitor enters the museum, or even before they step in the door. Think about your last museum visit, any type of museum will do. How did you know when it opened? Did you look and see what the exhibitions currently were? If you needed tickets, did you buy them in advanced? Its pretty likely you checked the museum’s website for all of these questions. There is already so much information about a museum ready at your fingertips without even entering a physical building. That doesn’t even begin to cover what digital technology is at play once you arrive at the museum. Things like security, climate control, member services, audio guides, Wifi and so much more are influencing how you experience a museum.

In an increasingly digital/technological world, visitors expect a certain level of the present to be incorporated in the “old world” of museum visiting. For many, museums are meant to be a break with the everyday, a way to transport yourself to another world and time. What is the museum’s place in the 21st century if the visitor has the outside world sitting in their back pocket in the form of a cellphone?  It is not enough to come to a museum and look at objects through glass because nine times out of ten, that exact object can be seen in HD on a computer in the comfort of your own home. Museums are now tackling how to get visitors truly engaged with the objects lining its walls, even if that means bringing the outside world in.

 

My most recent experience with digital technology in the museum setting was at my last trip to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this past Sunday. I didn’t plan on going to the museum that day, and I definitely wasn’t planning on writing a post about its use of technology throughout the galleries but my class discussion in Museums and Digital Technology this week got me thinking about how museums are embracing, or not, the digital age. More importantly, it got me thinking about if this incorporation of digital technology really enhanced my experience at the Museum of Natural History.

Views of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins crowded with Museum visitors.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

It had been a very long time since my last visit to NMNH and I wasn’t really sure what they had on display so I first check their website (linked above) to see if this was really the museum I wanted to visit that day and just how late they were open.  Already I was experiencing the museum’s first layer of digital technology and interacting with their most obvious digital presence. Upon arrival however, NMNH’s digital presence became a lot subtler.

Throughout the Hall of Human Origins, I encountered signs encouraging me to touch casts and models of different skulls and bones that were found throughout the world. Although not an obvious use of digital technology, some machine had to copy the original bones and then another machine was responsible for fabricating them into a durable material.

As I continued to wander through these galleries I came across a few touch screens that allowed visitors to learn a little more about certain subjects. These screens were not massive of widely advertised; instead they were tucked into the text panels in front of large display cases. They were there as an additional resource if a visitor wanted, but could easily be ignored or overlooked by someone breezing through a gallery.

While I think these touch screens offer an opportunity to learn more, I found some of them frustrating to work with. More often than not, these touch screens were not very reactive and I found myself jabbing my finger at the screen in order to go to a different screen. Instead of being able to easily learn about how lions hunt in the savannah, for example, I spent most of my time figuring out where the screen thought my finger was so I could compensate and click on the information I wanted.  Perhaps that comes with being a very well-visited institution that deals with numerous visitors a week.  Machines get worn out, touch screens often need to be re-calibrated, or maybe there was something on my fingers that made it hard to recognize on the screen. Whatever it was, the interactive touch screens definitely can aid in enhancing a learning experience (if you can get past the potential frustrations).

Of all the screens and models I walked past during my visit, I never encountered a wait time to use or touch something except in the Hall of Human Origin. Right next to the 3D models of our genetic ancestors were two photo booths that allowed visitors to see what they would look like as one of our ancestors with the option to email the image to yourself after. On two monitors in between the photo booths, images of past visitors rotated on the screens with the most notable facial features super-imposed over the grinning faces of visitors. I must admit, I was curious about what I would look like as an ancient human, so I began to wait in line along with about seven other people. After 5-10 minutes, however, I hadn’t really moved in line and the intrigue had worn off so I went on my way and explored the rest of the museum.

The irony of the only place in the museum encouraging a photograph having a waiting line is not lost on me. Instead of waiting in line to get to touch an object, people are willing to line up to take a picture with what is basically a Snapchat filter. What does that say about us a visitors? The notion of “the selfie” has become so mainstream that having a photo to prove that you went somewhere, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there has altered how we interact with the world around us. Instead of trying to break with this notion of “pics or it didn’t happen” and keep the museum visit about interacting with the objects, it seems that NMNH is trying to embrace the digital age one selfie at a time.

I just can’t help but wonder what this means for the museum purists like myself. Will my preference for the object-based learning and exploration be pushed aside for the addition of photo booths and touch screens that might not work?