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You may have noticed the ads in Metro stations a few months back. “We’re going public with our mistakes,” bragged a snazzy slogan from the National Postal Museum. Given a series of recent public-relations disasters—from post office shoot-ups to undelivered mail and rancorous union negotiations—the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) didn’t seem a likely accomplice in such an admission. Of course, it wasn’t. The avowed “mistakes” were philatelic, part of a campaign by the Smithsonian Institution to draw people to the country’s largest museum of philately and postal history.
The newest addition to the Smithsonian, the museum celebrates its second anniversary July 30. Visitors last year numbered almost half a million—more, one official said, than any other off-Mall Smithsonian site. The museum’s operating budget (shared by the Smithsonian and the USPS) is $3.3 million a year—not much compared to Air and Space, for example, but twice that budgeted for an off-Mall site like the Anacostia Museum. Between philatelists, post office families, and a public that cherishes the image of the friendly mailman, the Postal Museum has a large constituency—and some powerful friends.
Across the street from Union Station, the museum is housed in one of Washington’s finest federal temples. Architect Daniel Burnham (full disclosure: no relation) modeled a lobby of massive marble columns to front what would be the city’s chief post office from 1914 until 1986, disguising the mundane mail-sorting facilities housed below. Today the effect is breathtaking, the colonnaded entrance hall a grandiose Beaux-Arts tribute to the invisible epic of moving the mail.
While the ground-floor lobby is restored to its former splendor, the subterranean level is the home of the Postal Museum, a space that today exudes “cutting-edge”: suspended mailplanes in the 90-foot-high atrium; monitors broadcasting talking heads; interactive displays on historic postal routes; a fine philatelic section with pull-out display boards for postal stamps. There’s even a small Holocaust exhibit (“Unwelcome: Moritz Schoenberger and the S.S. St. Louis”), which seems to have become de rigueur for Washington museums of the ’90s. One might think curators would have trouble filling 25,000 square feet of exhibit space, but the Postal Museum is about more than stamps.
“I love letters,” begins program specialist Nancy Pope, the “curatorial voice” behind the exhibits. Pope led a search of historical societies for letters that would broaden people’s sense of America’s past. She proudly displays a missive in the Cherokee syllabary from a Confederate soldier; another is penned by a woman who complains there’s nothing to do in Santa Fe—in 1850. Pope’s eclectic style is confirmed in the Art of Cards and Letters Gallery, where a black family was chronicled through two centuries of correspondence. A future display will depict the saccharine image of women in traditional greeting cards—the cards are filled with the word “sweet.” Pope groans, “I hate that word.”
Such sociological excursions are fine, but Pope has misgivings about the role of some of these same groups in postal history. “The Postal Service has traditionally been the largest employer of African-Americans and minorities,” she explains—a promising legacy that turns out to have a double edge. While a postal position was a way to feed the family, she recounts, for educated people of color before the Civil Rights era it was also “a story of incredible frustration.” It wasn’t the job they wanted, she adds; “it was the job they could get.”
Few visitors to the museum are likely to grasp such ironies. For example, none of the postal employees who appear as talking heads in the “Reaching Everyone Theater” (many of them women and people of color), Pope admits, express any real dissatisfaction about the workplace. “You can’t forget that audience,” she says of disaffected employees, adding that “you can’t tell people what to say” either—a reference to their heartwarming, even cozy, testimony. Candidates for the video, I learn later, were nominated and screened for “interesting perspectives” by local and regional postmasters before being interviewed by the Smithsonian.
Pope lobbied—in vain—for a labor display in the theater, including a picket sign from the 1970 strike that helped force the reorganization of the USPS. But the museum was on a fast track, she remembers: “We put the place together in 33 months.” She accounts for the current exhibit—three small panels with a brief bow to labor, shrouded in darkness while the video plays—with a sad shrug. “Time and money,” she says, citing a familiar mantra, “time and money.” Pope denies that politics was involved in topic selection, saying that “the Postal Service is very good about acknowledging its unions.” Besides, none of the displays is intended to be permanent—and some weekend lectures actually feature labor issues. “It’s not something we’re not going to talk about.”
In fact, the story of the mails in the Postal Museum might best be labeled “handle with care.” To the museum’s credit, mention is made of labor unions (though none more recent than 1913); a formerly segregated work force; the high mortality rate of pilots and rail clerks in the old days; the fact that women were once “good” enough to be hired as letter carriers only during wartime. We even learn of a postal scandal during the Grant administration—too far removed, of course, to reflect badly on anyone. Proud of debunking the Pony Express, the museum devotes an entire wall to pop paraphernalia—board games, movie posters, lunch pails, and stamps—that do more to gift-wrap the legend in nostalgia than offer a meaningful disclaimer.
Though the museum takes the First Amendment as a symbolic charter, the implications of free speech are hardly considered. The only significant mention of censorship, for example, is in reference to the Civil War. Visitors won’t learn that the Post Office headed the government censorship effort during World War I, opening about 125,000 pieces of mail every day, banning anti-war literature and union publications. Nor will they find much about Arthur Summerfield, Postmaster General from 1953-60, who tried to ban Lady Chatterly’s Lover from the mails and whose private collection of captured pornography was the talk of Washington for years. Pornography wasn’t considered as an exhibit topic, Pope says, explaining later that “we really wanted to be known as a family museum.”
With two-thirds of its operating budget paid by the USPS, however, the museum runs the risk of being a feedback loop. A part of postal revenue (none of it appropriated by Congress) is recycled into explaining the role of men and women (and businesses) who bring us the mail. This is no doubt a worthy endeavor for an independent agency of some 800,000 employees—whose friends and families, it turns out, make up the largest single group of visitors to the museum. The de facto governing committee, chaired by museum Director James Bruns, is comprised of three other Smithsonian officials and three representatives from the USPS (including Postmaster General Marvin Runyon), which provided the site and the initial $15-million start-up costs.
So what does the USPS have to do with the exhibits? “They did not even see a script,” affirms Bruns, a second-generation Smithsonian curator and author of numerous books on postal history. “The Postal Service was only conferred with when collegiality would dictate,” he explains, stressing that the museum had complete interpretive control. He’s adamant on the point: “We did not ask their approval.”
That no museum display mentions Federal Express, for example (the “F-word,’ as one employee called it), doesn’t bother Bruns. “That’s not really the foundation on which the museum was built,” he offers, citing that the Postal Service handles more pieces of mail in a day than Fed Ex does in a year. “There are probably a lot of people,” he adds of another competitor, “who haven’t ever seen a brown truck [parked] in front of their door.” Besides, he says, the biggest complaint the Postal Service hears comes from collectors grousing about stamps exhibited in low light—not exactly a political firestorm. “[People] realize this is the Smithsonian,” he concludes, “not the Postal Service.”
Such professions of independence don’t sit well with everyone. “I’m very disappointed in the museum,” says Douglas Holbrook, secretary/treasurer of the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, who was originally a strong supporter. “Labor has no role over there,” he complains, and never had any effective input into the exhibits. The union was promised a place on a museum advisory committee, Holbrook says, but was subsequently never contacted; in spite of its cash donation of $50,000, he adds, the exhibits barely mention organized labor. He calls the postal employee interviews “staged events,” with well-coiffed people in suits talking about issues of little concern to the average postal worker.
Not all interested parties are so invisible. One of the biggest donors has been Pitney-Bowes Inc., a major postal contractor that produced and donated a video on mail meter machines that plays in the museum—and repeatedly highlights the company name. (Unlike the interactive exhibits, the tape loop—“Metered Mail: Helping American Business Succeed”—plays continuously.) Grumman Corp., also a contractor and museum donor, is touted on a large wall board that extols the company’s resilient vehicles. Corporate donations have played a key role in development, a fact that helps the Smithsonian spend no more on the museum now than it did when the philatelic collection was part of the Museum of American History.
On balance, the Postal Museum is an odd mix of letter and lore, girded with an impressive brace of high-tech. (One brochure compares the advent of rural free delivery to the feats of Prometheus.) As Andrei Codrescu frets on one panel (the Smithsonian refers to several upbeat essays as “case-in-point editorials”), the days of public mail service may well be coming to an end—and then we’ll all be sorry. Rather than blame the messenger, then, the museum asks us to salute him—and her. Just as long as the heroes don’t organize and aren’t disruptive of business as usual.
Visitors will see a statue of Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of the site and father of the American post office, on their way out. The Franklin statue was moved from the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue to the museum floor, and his entrepreneurial spirit is only fitting. For like the wry advice of his colonial persona Poor Richard, the museum endorses a folksy but savvy business ethic. “A quarrelsome man,” said Poor Richard in 1746, “has no good neighbors.”