The National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

This post was written in 2008 about the summer of 2007, when I spent five weeks in Washington, D.C. studying political journalism. Published with this post is an article I wrote about the National Postal Museum for a class assignment.

Our first assignment was to be a story on any tourist attraction in Washington. And I chose to write about the National Postal Museum. To be honest, I wasn’t sold on a story about this museum. It wasn’t one of the big attractions in Washington. I decided to visit it anyway and see if I could dig a story out of a seemingly mundane place. Lesson learnt in narrow-mindedness and misconceptions. I came to find out how significant postal history could be, being tied to many aspects such as communications, transport, economic progress, politics and even international relations.

National Postal Museum | Washington, D.C.

I interviewed a few employees of the museum and then ambled around the museum a little bit, even talking to a Japanese girl who was a volunteer at the museum. There was also a collection of stamps from around the world on display and there were some Singapore stamps from 1959  that I had never seen before – they had Queen Elizabeth on them!

Singapore stamps from 1960s | National Postal Museum | Washington, D.C.

Just as I was about to leave the museum, I came across a fairly new exhibit – a damaged piece of plastic that was used to hold postal packages and was recovered from among the debris of the plane that crashed into Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001. United Airlines Flight 93 was headed to Washington, D.C. that fateful morning before passengers and flight crew thwarted the attempt, although there were no survivors from the crash. That later resulted in a ban of postal delivery on commercial flight, also in part to the fact that these postal packages cannot be scanned.

There was an exhibit about the anthrax scare in postal deliveries, another reminder of the impact of terrorism and how it has seeped into the worldwide postal system. I left the museum realizing that as insignificant as the postal museum might have seemed to me at first, its exhibits actually have an important place in history.

National Postal Museum | Washington, D.C.

D.C.’s Hidden Gem

July 7, 2007

WASHINGTON — At a time when the prevalence of technology over modern society seems commonplace, Daniel Falk admits that it is hard for one to imagine the workings of a postal system in past centuries. As the Exhibitions Specialist of the National Postal Museum, the 28-year-old Falk says his job involves taking visitors on a journey through three centuries of postal history to better understand today’s postal system.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Falk graduated with a degree in Classical History from Rutgers University in 2001. His parents were both employed by the Smithsonian Institution. He has been working at the National Postal Museum for the last four years and imagines himself to be there for quite a while. Dressed in a blue polo T-shirt and khaki pants on a casual Friday, Falk walks around the museum with a walkie-talkie in his hand. He speaks quickly, but retains a sincere tone and a warm smile – one gets the impression that he is proud of the museum’s exhibits.

“Some of our popular exhibits include Binding the Nation and Moving the Mail,” said Falk. “Both of them are very educational in terms of illustrating how mail used to be delivered, from horse-drawn carriages, to rail, to airmail.”

Allison Wickens, Director of Education at the National Postal Museum, agreed with Falk. She works closely with Falk to monitor visitor response. According to the most recent survey she conducted in July 2005, the National Postal Museum receives about 400,000 visitors annually and a majority of them are families who come in spring and summer. About 10 percent of their visitors are foreigners. Wickens added that the National Postal Museum is the definitive authority on postal history in the United States.

Set up by an agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Postal Service in 1990, the National Postal Museum opened to the public on July 30, 1993. It is housed on the lower level of the old City Post Office Building, which was constructed in 1914 and served as the main post office of Washington, D.C. till 1986.

Flight 93 postal debris | National Postal Museum | Washington, D.C.One artifact that stands out is a U.S. mail carton that was retrieved from the debris of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. It may not belong to the rich history of the U.S. postal system, but it marks a move away from mail delivery via commercial flights. According to Lynn Heidelbaugh, Assistant Curator at the National Postal Museum, the United States Postal System no longer delivers its mail packages via commercial flights because of the inability to scan the contents of the packages.

Nancy Pope has been working for the Smithsonian Institution since 1984. As Historian and Curator at the National Postal Museum, she explains that the National Postal Museum has a greater significance than one would imagine. Other than its philatelic section that appeals to stamp experts, its exhibits and information on postal history “deals with transport and communications methodology for the past 200 years.”

“The postal system is universal. It is a service to and from all,” said Pope. “I have visitors who come and remark that their experience went better than they expected.”

Dan Falk feels satisfied that he fulfilled his goal of educating visitors through the exhibits, but adds that the museum could do better.

“The Postal Museum is a hard sell. How do you promote it to tourists unless they have a specific interest in stamps?” he said. “This is Washington’s hidden gem, an oasis outside the crowds of the National Mall.”


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