Like the post office itself, there was a sense that the National Postal Museum had to evolve. As home to the Smithsonian’s second-largest collection — at 6 million items, only the Natural History Museum has more — the museum was historically rich, culturally resonant and enthusiastically commemorative.
But noticeably non-interactive.
Located inside the Bureau of Labor Statistics with a lobby atrium and one floor of exhibition space, it was a museum whereby visitors who brought their passions, memories and curiosities could thrill to postal processes and civic Americana. For those who’ve mostly grown up mailing electronically, it could be too much psychic work to get there.
With the $18 million, 12,000-square-foot addition of the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, which will open Sunday, all the tools for engagement are provided, finally allowing the collection to work its magic.
It’s a complete “rethinking of our space,” with a new presence and visibility, and “more user-friendly,” Cheryl Ganz, chief curator of philately, says of the world’s largest stamp gallery. People come in right away and “realize there is more going on. They’re seeing history and culture through fresh eyes.” And getting the stories that only stamps tell.
William H. Gross, founder and co-CIO of the Pimco investment management firm, collected stamps as a boy and became a serious collector of 19th century stamps and rare letters in 1992. He donated $12 million of the $18 million addition. The intent was to make this “the people’s gallery as opposed to just the philatelists’ gallery,” Gross says. “I’ve been in the basement and saw the myriad of stamps, and seen its rarities and that was nice, but hidden from view. Now they’ve brought many of those upstairs,” where they will engage the novice as well as the collectors.
The new gallery will house the first American stamps, from 1847, a piece of mail from the 1860 Pony Express with “recovered from a mail stolen by the Indians” written on the envelope, and the 1918 “Inverted Jenny” with its biplane printed upside down — the most famous U.S. stamp-printing error. “Kids are going to be able to bring five or six stamps home that speak to the past and to history, and maybe get them engaged in intellectual debates and that’s why it fits right in,” Gross says.
Ninety percent of the museum’s traffic comes from its Massachusetts Avenue entrance across from Union Station and “for the first time, we have a street-level exhibition,” Ganz says. The space features a temporary gallery, an exhibition loft for education programs and six permanent galleries: World of Stamps, Gems of American Philately, Mail Marks History, Connect with U.S. Stamps, National Stamp Salon and Stamps Around the Globe.
A wall of “Windows Into America” faces Massachusetts Avenue and displays stamp art and designs. Visitors can digitally create a collection, design stamps and hear stamp designers talk. The avid collector can search the National Stamp Salon, which features 275 pullout frames displaying tens of thousands of stamps and pieces of mail.
The historic Beaux Arts building, designed by the same architectural firm as Union Station, had been the Washington City Post Office. The historic lobby, which was restored in 1989, includes a welcome center, and four large video screens with a series of vignettes. The lobby was designed to be active, Ganz says. “It was a very social space and we want to re-create that lively atmosphere again.”