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Postal museum is more than stamp act

January 18, 1998|RANDY KRAFT | ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I didn't have high expectations about the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

I figured the place would be mostly about stamps, a subject in which I'm not particularly interested. So it took me longer to get around to visiting the museum than it should have. When I finally did go recently, I was very pleasantly surprised.

As you descend into the museum on an escalator, you immediately know you've arrived at a special place. Colorful old airplanes are suspended in a bright, 90-foot-high atrium. A stagecoach, a mail truck, a replica of an old airport beacon tower, even a railroad mail car are on the floor below.

The Smithsonian Institution certainly has lived up to its reputation with this museum, which opened more than four years ago. If you want to know how a piece of mail gets from Nebraska to Nairobi, why stamps were invented, how envelopes evolved or why junk mail does not significantly contribute to landfills, this is the place to visit.

Its own promotional brochures don't do the museum justice. They say it showcases the world's "largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic materials." (Philatelic materials are stamps, postmarks, postcards, envelopes and similar postal items.) If you're an avid stamp collector, you may be halfway to your car by now. If you're not, the museum probably doesn't sound all that exciting.

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As I discovered, stamps are just one small part of what the museum offers.

It is much better described as the nation's first major museum devoted to postal history. In a refreshingly different way, it really tells the history of the growth of the United States.

"Most people's perception, when they hear 'National Postal Museum' is 'Oh my god, it's going to be boring,' " said James Bruns, the museum's director. "In reality, it is not about stamps and it is not boring. It is fun. People come out of here remarkably amazed."

Bruns said the postal museum was designed for children. "The plan was to build it as close to a children's museum as the Smithsonian's ever had. In that respect, we are very much on target. The majority of our visitors are under 18 years of age."

Children should especially enjoy a re-creation of a dark and snowy forest in Colonial America, depicting the wilderness that had to be traversed when mail was delivered on a 268-mile-long system of Indian trails between New York and Boston.

Although many tourists don't stray off the National Mall, where most of the Smithsonian's museums are located, Bruns said the postal museum is less than a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol.

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The $15-million museum is next to Union Station on Capitol Hill. It gets about 432,000 visitors a year.

Unlike Smithsonian museums on the Mall, the postal museum does not have an entire building to itself. It is in the lower level of the former Washington City Post Office. The building still houses a post office, as well as several federal agencies, but Smithsonian officials say the museum is "its heart and soul."

The beautifully restored interior of the granite and marble building is breathtaking in its opulence. It claims one of the most elegant public postal lobbies in the United States.

Completed in 1914, the Beaux Arts-style structure was Washington's main post office until 1986. In those days, the floor of what is now the museum was a sky-lighted area for sorting and distributing mail for the nation's capital.

Visitors enter the museum from the center of the old post office lobby. When you descend on the escalator (it also has elevators), the museum looks like one big room.

But that place contains much more than initially meets the eye because that room is surrounded by smaller galleries. Yes, one of them is about stamps. Others are about the history of the federal duck stamp program, how the mail service helped bind the new nation and how the mail got to customers and communities.

Bruns recommended spending at least two hours in the museum. He said the average visitor spends 20 minutes just in the highly interactive What's in the Mail for You? gallery, which is about the direct mail industry, and there are five more galleries.

He said the Art of Cards and Letters gallery is the one most often overlooked, possibly because it is the most traditional and least interactive. Its exhibits about the evolution of personal correspondence change often. They include military mail, White House greeting cards and family letters.

One of the most popular interactives allows you to use a computer to address a souvenir museum postcard. (You add your greeting the old-fashioned way, by writing it.) For 20 cents, you can mail the card from the museum.

In the rail car, you can see how fast you can sort mail, compared to postal workers who were required to sort 600 pieces an hour.

There also is a simulator that shows what it was like to fly an early airmail plane. And an interactive display traces old mail routes.

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