Allen Kane had zero experience in museum administration when he became director of the National Postal Museum in 2002. He wasn’t a stamp collector, either.
But Kane knew the U.S. Postal Service, having spent 30 years working there, including stints managing its Gulf War Crisis Team and leading its $800 million marketing effort. Because the Postal Service is the museum’s landlord and largest funder, Kane got the job.
To his surprise, he loved it.
“I said, ‘I’ll stay for six months, fix it up and then I’m going to the beach,’ ” Kane recalled. “I came from a huge government agency that has a lot of rules and regulations. [This] is very entrepreneurial. If you bring in the money, you can do whatever you like. You can really change it.”
Kane embraced the possibilities he found at the museum, which opened in 1993 and is one of the smallest in the Smithsonian complex. He dramatically expanded its exhibition space by opening the world’s largest stamp gallery. He increased the staff and the number of exhibitions, displayed rare and internationally famous stamps, and created a website focused solely on renowned stamps and collections. He improved fundraising and built a network of volunteers who help curators develop and create exhibitions.
If Kane is aware of the inherent contradiction of expanding a museum that celebrates a declining service and a hobby whose glory days have probably passed, he doesn’t let on.
“It’s a history museum,” he said. “We’re interested in rare stamps, and we use them to tell stories.”
Kane, 71, is retiring this month after a tenure of 14 years because of a recent heart attack. Last week, the Smithsonian named Marshall F. “Marty” Emery, the museum’s manager of public relations and Internet affairs, as acting director until a national search for a permanent director is completed.
Colleagues credit Kane’s management skills and personality for strengthening the institution, which has 6 million objects in its collection, the second largest in the Smithsonian.
“It wouldn’t exist without his tenacity and his unwillingness to take no for an answer,” said Charles Shreve, a member of the museum’s Council of Philatelists and the director of the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries in New York. “I can’t underestimate the value of his relationship with postal officials.”
Kane, Shreve said, has always put his constituents first. “He’d say, ‘I’m not the collector, you guys are. What do you want? What do you need? Tell me what you need and I’ll get it.’ ”
Kane’s successes are based on that can-do attitude. When his appointment angered collectors who wanted a proven philatelist at the helm, he focused on their wish list. “We started on the stamp side and built that up,” he said. “Once you say, ‘Here’s what we can do together,’ you get them going and they love it.”
Kane is proud of his management accomplishments — and cost-cutting. Case in point: One of the statues of postal workers in the museum’s atrium features Kane’s likeness, because he didn’t want to pay a model several thousand dollars to pose for it. He later regretted that decision, however, saying that having his head covered in plaster was terrifying.
To create a recent online exhibition about the mailing industry, Kane turned to the trade associations for help, enlisting volunteers to develop, research and write its stories.
“The mailing industry is a $1.4 trillion industry that no one knows about. It’s probably the best government/private-sector partnership you’ll ever see,” he said.
The exhibition is an example of Kane’s “hub and spoke” management strategy, which seeks experts in the field to work with the museum’s bare-bones staff. Once involved, these individuals form a real connection with the institution.
“We’re building a partnership for the future,” Kane said. “I like that better than having an army of curators writing and then going on to something else. And it’s cheap.”
Kane doesn’t worry about the ethical questions raised by the museum’s tight relationship with the Postal Service. Unique among Smithsonian museums, the branch has a long-term contract with the Postal Service that includes space in its historic building next to Union Station and a $3 million annual grant, half of its roughly $6 million budget, according to the Smithsonian.
Its exhibitions detail the history of the U.S. mail and its innovations in transportation and communication. There are exhibits about the Pony Express; interactive computer displays that allow visitors to design their own stamps; and examples of trains, planes and automobiles that delivered the mail. A movie about modern postal delivery was made by the Postal Service’s video department, saving the museum almost $500,000.
There are no mentions of snail mail or “going postal.”
“Do we tell the story they want? We tell the story we want to tell, but in fairness, we run it by them and other organizations to get their input,” Kane said, referring to the Postal Service.
The museum attracted 398,000 visits last year, a 12 percent increase over 2015 but still in the bottom quarter of Smithsonian branches. (Only African Art, Anacostia and the Sackler Gallery attracted fewer visits last year.) Average annual attendance during Kane’s tenure is 358,500; about 30 percent are Postal Service employees and retirees.
Kane says the 2013 opening of the William H. Gross Gallery was the highlight of his tenure. He persuaded the Postal Service to provide the space, previously occupied by a rent-paying restaurant and brewery. (Asked to confirm rumors that he called in favors to get the restaurant out, Kane smiled and said, “I can’t tell you.”) Financier and stamp collector William H. Gross donated $8 million, the largest private gift in the museum’s history. District oversight panels quickly approved the museum’s request to hang images of stamps in the gallery’s 54 windows, immediately improving the museum’s visibility.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done,” Kane said. “I like it when people say it’s impossible. That’s the fun.”