New postal museum opens in D.C. Stamps are just the starting point in this post office

July 25, 1993|By Rick Horowitz | Rick Horowitz,Contributing Writer

Welcome to Washington's newest collection of oddly appealing things -- the National Postal Museum, which opens July 30. It's the one place in the country where you can see, in the very same building:

* George Washington's postage bill and Cliff Clavin's mailman's uniform,

* An authentic stagecoach and a Pony Express Bible,

* Charles Lindbergh's airmail-pilot application and a six-fingered Franklin Roosevelt.

The National Postal Museum, located in (naturally) a restored post office on Capitol Hill across the street from Union Station, is the latest link in the capital's popular Smithsonian chain. It's an offshoot, in fact, of the National Museum of American History, where the National Philatelic Collection has been housed for nearly 30 years.

Ten years in the planning -- though the idea goes back even further than that -- and more than two years in the building, the National Postal Museum hopes to tell America's story through its mail. Who sent what? Where did it go? How did it get there? And what does it all mean?

It's a tale worth telling, museum planners believe, and the general public -- Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Letter-Writer and Catalog-Receiver -- will get plenty out of it. So will stamp collectors and philatelic scholars, school children, and postal workers and their families. There will be pull-out display cases of stamps, certainly, as there were in the old quarters, but visitors can check out some 30 interactive exhibits, too. You can:

* Try your hand sorting mail the way they used to do it in railway mail cars. Are you as prompt to the pigeonhole as the old-timers used to be? And how would you -- and they-- compare with today's bar-code scanners?

* Fly a computer-simulated DeHavilland biplane from the 1920s, snatching and dropping off mailbags on the wing. Fly too high and your hook grabs only air, too low, you crash into bushes and telephone lines.

* Become an instant letter carrier, and plot the quickest route from here to there -- "Rail, Sail or Overland Mail" -- as the computer tosses out an array of potential obstacles. A neighborhood tavern where everybody knows your name isn't

one of them.

Owed to Postal Service

"If you look at the development of this country," says Herbert Collins, godfather of the new museum and, until his retirement several months ago, executive director of the National Philatelic Collection at the Smithsonian, "the communications and transportation development in this country owes itself to the postal service." Street names, house numbers, the road system itself, all came from the need to move the mail efficiently -- as did commercial airlines.

It was a much bigger story than the Smithsonian could tell in just 4,000 square feet, and what it could tell, many people never even saw.

"We have always felt that we were slighted," Mr. Collins had explained in 1991, as construction began on the new museum, "because it's in one corner of the building on the third floor, and people come in on the first level and the second level, and how many of them go up to the third level? . . . In this [new] building, we will have all of it."

It all started coming together on a 1983 trip to Ottawa, when Mr. Collins visited Canada's postal museum, then looked elsewhere and confirmed that most major countries had major postal museums -- but not the United States.

Mr. Collins set about changing that, and met with the then-postmaster general of the United States to pitch a new approach. "We had never tried a venture together with the Postal Service and the Smithsonian -- each had tried it separately," he says. Indeed, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the Post Office Department and the Smithsonian had had competing postal collections, until the Post Office decided to get out of the collecting business and turn its holdings over to the Smithsonian.

In 1984, Mr. Collins brought in James Bruns, a philatelic expert from the Postal Service, to serve as curator of postal history and philately. Mr. Bruns also had a background in education; Mr. Collins wanted a museum that engaged its visitors more actively than its predecessor, with more outreach, more interpretation, "and Jim was the man to do that." He was also the man to improve on the museum's skimpy collection of three-dimensional objects.

Mr. Bruns also helped negotiate the agreement, finally signed in 1990, to establish the separate postal museum. The Postal Service would own the building that houses it -- the former Washington City Post Office -- and would pay for construction and start-up costs (an estimated $15.4 million), as well as an annual $2 million pledge for operating expenses. The Smithsonian would continue to own the Philatelic Collection, and would kick in $500,000 annually (the same amount it had been providing), plus $500,000 in in-kind contributions -- expertise and such from elsewhere in the Smithsonian system.

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