Yet after a pre-pandemic wander through the National Postal Museum’s mail-sorting train car, “oohing” and “aahing” at rare stamps, and puzzling over all the strange things you can mail (bees! goldfish!), I began to see the post office as less like a place of mind-numbing bureaucracy and more like a datapoint in a sprawling web of communications history.
As recent cuts to the U.S. Postal Service are threatening timely delivery of election ballots and vital medications, as well as forcing already strained small businesses to turn to more expensive private services, it’s an inopportune time for the Postal Museum to be closed. Often regarded as a hidden gem of the Smithsonian, the museum surprises visitors for the same reason we have debates about funding to the Postal Service: The USPS is so embedded in our everyday lives, it has become invisible. It’s like a nerve you don’t think about until it’s been pinched.
Housed in the former city post office building next to Union Station, the museum — with its ornate, high ceilings — at first glance looks like a better fit for a royal ball. But perhaps more than any of its peers, the Postal Museum lives up to the Smithsonian’s reputation as “America’s attic.” A testament to the widespread influence of the Postal Service, the museum boasts a hodgepodge of objects that could have been borrowed from other Smithsonians: airplanes hung like those at the Air and Space; a taxidermy dog a la Natural History; stamps with famous visual art, like a gallery at the American Art Museum made fun-size.
Opened in 1993 and funded largely by the USPS, the museum seems to operate under a premise that no topic is too narrow or broad to be explored through what museum staff call a “postal lens” — be it the history of baseball or civil rights. The result is an expansive story about communication and what it means to connect, often — as a mail carrier’s dog sled suggests — against the odds.
The Postal Museum employees I spoke with refrained from commenting directly on recent USPS developments, citing the Smithsonian’s nonpartisanship. But in these polarized times, from a certain angle, the Postal Service’s very mandate that mail should reach all Americans in all Zip codes for the same price, regardless of profitability (and even if it takes riding a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon) can sound inherently political. (Imagine if we had a government mandate to make WiFi and digital information that widely accessible.)
Still, Maggie Sigle, manager of the museum’s volunteer docent and intern programs, laments the temporary loss of the physical museum, which could have been a place for public discourse during these times. In her early days at the museum, where she has worked since 2013, Sigle recalls watching an elderly philatelist and two young children help each other find stamps.
“We have very different audiences, and I think the ways they interact and support each other is fairly unique in a small museum,” she says.
When asked about the continuing relevance of the Postal Service in 21st-century life, both Sigle and Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the museum, cited “Systems at Work,” an exhibition about USPS innovations — Zip codes, character-reading technology, automated sorting machines, mail-tracking technology.
“You can’t divorce the Postal Service from other modern communication networks. They’re intertwined,” says Heidelbaugh, who specializes in the overlap between Postal Service and business history.
Compared with objects in other Smithsonian museums, stamps and mail-sorting machines certainly lack the immediate “wow” feeling incited by say, the Udvar-Hazy Center’s giant space shuttle. So Sigle encourages the docents to make the postal items relatable by leading with a story.
She points to a Nicaraguan stamp with a volcano image as an example of a historical moment brought to life by the museum’s approach. An engineer used the stamp to petition Congress to build the canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Panama instead of Nicaragua. Looking at the inky, thumb-size volcano, Sigle notes, “it’s as if you’re in the head of someone arguing about it.”
Another object in the collection, a coconut featuring an address and pierced heart scratched into its side, brings a visitor into a very different, less logical head: that of a lovesick sailor deployed to Hawaii during World War II.
“We have this very specific ‘postal lens’ that we look at history from, and I think it ends up being a much more personal lens,” Sigle says.
Over the past few months, Sigle has been overseeing Zoom calls, during which docents stay fresh by giving presentations to each other on the collection. On a recent call, the museum’s perforation paddle told a story of familiar anxieties.
The paddle, which looks like a hairbrush with spikes, was used in the late 1800s to puncture mail so that postal workers could fumigate it to try to contain yellow fever outbreaks. In 1901, researchers determined that the disease could not be spread by mail, and yet in an act of sanitization theater (not unlike the temperature checks and plastic-coated elevator buttons of today), the Postal Service continued to fumigate the mail well into the 20th century.
Museums, by definition, look backward, but they can never be truly insulated from the current events outside their walls. Their success depends on connecting with viewers bound up in the present.
The museum’s “Behind the Badge” exhibit dedicated to the little known postal inspectors, some of whom recently arrested former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon on a yacht, has taken on renewed relevance. And a mail-in ballot cast in the 1864 election reads like evidence of perseverance amid crisis, a cheer of encouragement from history. If, 150-plus years ago, this little slip of paper made it through a civil war and all the way to the ballot box, why shouldn’t mine?
Museums often deal in the business of making grand objects grander with frames and pedestals. The postal museum, by contrast, takes mundane objects you might pass by and brings them closer to you. Looking at an otherwise ordinary piece of mail with a smudge of moon dust on it, you might feel enchanted by the fleeting sense that you’ve received a note from space.
For Lynn, this reframing of often unexamined objects is part of the museum’s draw. “Communication is such a fundamental human experience, and postal communications is one type,” she says. “The museum gives people a chance to pause and reconsider things that they might interface with everyday.”
Even if the pandemic prevents us from strolling through the postal museum, perhaps we can adopt its approach in the interim: Letters exchanged between socially distanced friends; DIY masks made by mail carriers working on the front lines; fashion masks from Etsy empires built on USPS shipping; decommissioned sorting machines; mail-in 2020 election ballots. It’s surprisingly easy to imagine the story of this moment in history told through a “postal lens.”