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


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.

In 1989, Mr. Bruns was named deputy executive director of the National Philatelic Collection, then acting director of the National Postal Museum, and then, in December of 1991, director.

In its old quarters, Mr. Bruns had said that year, the collection "fails miserably," trying to cram U.S. postal history, world postal history, the stamp collection, rarities, the pull-out frames and everything else into 4,000 square feet. "And when you try to do that, the view or the taste you come away with is a smaller taste, and in many cases maybe a dissatisfying taste. . . .

"Even the one service that probably touched the American people more than any other -- it's almost the best government service, it certainly is the best postal service -- is Rural Free Delivery. We now accommodate Rural Free Delivery and the history of it in one panel, and the panel's about 6 by 4. It's a far bigger story, and a more important story, than can be portrayed in one panel."

There'll be plenty of room for the big stories -- and even some smaller ones -- in the new museum's 23,000 square feet of exhibit space. (Other areas of the large building will be used as offices for Federal agencies.) And while there will still be some models and replicas on display, there'll be plenty of real stuff out there, too, in the five major permanent galleries (with more to open in 1994).

For instance:

* In "Binding the Nation," visitors can see Benjamin Franklin's rate chart and ledger from his days as Colonial postmaster general, George Washington's postage bill, the Bible that Pony Express riders were given, and letters from Civil War soldiers.

* In "Customers and Communities," there's a Model T Ford fitted with skis to cope with a wintry RFD route, plus a collection of mailboxes shaped like cameras, alligators and airplanes. Also included are the burnt remains of the Craig, Alaska, post office, stored in a jar, and the actual uniform worn by America's best-known -- if not best-respected -- mailman, "Cheers' " Cliff Clavin. The last two items are displayed as "postal oddities."

* In the "Moving the Mail" gallery, the atrium holds three historic airplanes, including the 1911 Wiseman-Cooke that was the first to fly registered airmail; an authentic 1851 Concord-style stagecoach; Charles Lindbergh's application for an airmail-pilot's license; half a fake mustache used by a train robber; and the famous Tommy gun used by mail-train guards to try to prevent those robberies.

The floor design is stamps on envelopes in the middle of the room, the back-flaps of envelopes along the borders.

* "The Art of Cards and Letters" holds greeting cards, travel post cards, political post cards, and a handstamp from the U.S.S. Oklahoma, stationed at Pearl Harbor, dated Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the "day which will live in infamy." A changing exhibit of letters begins with a collection of missives of an African-American family dating back to 1740.

* And, finally, the "Stamps and Stories" gallery houses the famous "type collection" of all U.S. issues, plus a rotating collection of stamps from other countries, not to mention displays of oddly shaped stamps, counterfeit stamps, Confederate stamps and Abraham Lincoln stamps. It also includes errors: a 1947 stamp from Monaco shows Franklin Roosevelt with six fingers on his left hand, for example.

The museum also includes what's said to be the world's largest philatelic library (40,000 volumes and manuscripts); specimen-inspection facilities for serious researchers; a functioning post office, and a philatelic gift shop.

Jim Bruns is a happy man. His museum, he says, is coming in on time and under budget -- "I've been told it's never been done in the Smithsonian's history." There were some bumps along the way, of course. The luminescent dials in the old airplane control panels contained radium; someone had to make sure exposure levels were safe. And fake snow was needed for some of the exhibits -- snow that would look realistic, wouldn't get dirty, wouldn't melt, wouldn't burn, and would even hold its own on twigs.

Approachable exhibits

Some modifications were also necessary. A display that had once shown a Colonial-era mannequin carving the first post road from New York to Boston now -- several incarnations later -- sends visitors themselves into those woods, searching for the post rider's hatchet marks on the trees, trying to discover what became of him on his arduous trip north. (We'll never tell.)

The idea behind it all is to make the museum's exhibits -- and the information they contain -- as approachable as possible. And Mr. Bruns expects plenty of people to approach: The museum is projecting 1.5 million visitors per year.

There is no Hall of the Disgruntled Postal Worker.

In fact, contributions to the museum have been solicited from postal workers nationwide, in addition to such corporate sponsors as Pitney Bowes (which has been donating postal artifacts to the Smithsonian since the 1950s) and Hallmark. Do the contributions slant the museum's approach, turn the building into, say, a celebration of the Postal Service?

Mr. Bruns says no -- emphatically.

"There is no sense that we in any way are their spokesperson -- good, bad, indifferent, or whatever. We look at some points of American history that I'm sure the Postal Service people would like us to forget. There were frauds, we look at mail frauds, and we also look at internal frauds -- they're a fact of life, they're a part of our history."

40 percent of world's mail

Mr. Bruns warms to the subject. "One of the things you should know, I guess, is that, irrespective of what a lot of people think or may believe they think, we have -- personal opinion -- I believe we have the finest mail system in the world. . . . Keep in mind that we handle 40 percent of the world's mail.

"Yes, if I mailed a letter in France, it can get to the other end of France probably tomorrow, but France is about as big as maybe two of our states, and the rates are higher. . . . If France was as big as we are, and had the mail volume we have, and charged the rates we did, they wouldn't be in business."

Most American families, he says, include a postal worker or two somewhere. "I was a postal worker, my daddy was a postal worker, my brother-in-law is a postal worker. Postal workers are extremely proud of what they do, and rightfully so. . . . Philatelists have been extremely supportive, too, because it is what they do as an avocation. And there's nothing wrong with them supporting this kind of museum."

"America's History Is in the Mail" -- that's the National Postal Museum's philosophy. The country's commercial, cultural, political and "transportational" past can be read in those stamps and envelopes, steamers and trucks, union ribbons and carriers' whistles.

"It's an American history museum," says Mr. Bruns, "but it looks at American history from a unique perspective. It looks at it from the perspective of the American people, because we have used the mail, and it has served us."

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist based in Milwaukee.

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