National Postal Museum

June 20, 2010


As promised, here is a more detailed review of the National Postal Museum. The Postal Museum is one of the lesser known of the Smithsonian family, and undeservedly so. I’ve been a fan of it ever since my first visit in 2001, and have made a point of going back to see it every time I’ve since been to D.C. (and I’m not a stamp collector, in case you were thinking that’s where my interest comes from). Situated in the old Post Office building next to Union Station, the museum is “devoted to the history of America’s mail service and the hobby of stamp collecting.”

You begin your visit by descending an escalator into a 90 foot high atrium gallery and the museum’s central exhibit, Moving the Mail, which looks at how the technology for transporting the mail has grown and changed. It includes several mail vans, a recreated railway mail train, and a bi-plane. Oh, and one of those lorry cabins the size of a small house that I don’t remember being there before. Maybe it’s new. Either way, you’re allowed to climb inside and the husband had great joy slipping behind the steering wheel while I rode shotgun. The gallery also includes some kiosks where you can send Postal Museum postcards to your loved ones (or to other people). Are you feeling suitably interactive yet?

From there it’s recommended to continue your visit in Binding the Nation, which explores the history of the mail service, starting from its beginnings in Colonial America and leading up to the end of the 19th century. On entering the gallery you find yourself in a murky forest – well, it’s actually a replica of the first post road, which some might think a bit quaint, but I think it’s quite cool. The gallery then takes you through several sections of the more traditional ‘cases + text panels’ design, covering topics such as the importance of written communication in an emerging new nation, the challenges of delivering mail over vast distances, the legendary Pony Express, and the impact of the Civil War on the mail service. The interactive visitor engagement continues with hands-on activities such as looking inside a replica Colonial mailbag or climbing on board a replica mud wagon, and a computer game challenging you to create the perfect mail route. The final section looks at postal crimes such as robbery, mail bombings and identity theft, and has a series of challenges asking visitors to ‘solve the case’ featuring e.g. reading fingerprinting, handwriting analyses or creating suspect profiles.

The last gallery that we saw was Customers & Communities, which examines the delivery of mail to America’s rapidly expanding population in the 20th century, both in urban and rural areas. This gallery is not as interactive, but features some cool objects such as the collection of those typical American mail boxes that people in suburbs and rural areas have at the end of their drive ways, some of which were miniature works of art (including a model of the US Capitol Building).

That was all we managed to cover during our recent visit, but there is other stuff to see that we didn’t have time for, including The Arts of Cards & Letters, which looks as the role of mail in personal communication, and, of course, the stamp galleries (sorry, the philatelic galleries). One of my favourite exhibits – and the one I had waxed lyrical about to the husband – was sadly closed for refurbishment: through a series of touchscreen interactives, What’s in the Mail For You teaches you about how mail is delivered, including how the nine digit US postcodes can indentify an exact address. At the beginning you enter you name and have your photograph taken, and the subsequent exhibits remember you (I last did this in 2001 so can’t quite remember how it worked). At the end of your visit you can print off a certificate and a letter addressed to you and signed by the museum director. I don’t know if this will still be there after the refurbishment, but I hope so. Hey, I’m a sucker for these things!


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