A Hidden Gem: The National Postal Museum

It finally snowed! I love snow, but it definitely is not conducive for cherry blossoms or a blog about public spaces. Since the weather has turned cold again, I ventured into another museum for this week’s post. Did you know the Smithsonian has an entire museum dedicated to the Postal Service?

I only really found out when my roommate and a friend visited the museum and came home raving about it. I knew I had to visit.


Source: Smash the Iron Cage on Wikimedia Commons

A brief history of the museum: the National Philatelic Collection was established in 1886 when a sheet of 10-cent Confederate postage stamps was donated. The collection has now grown to more than 5.9 million items and the museum was opened in 1993.

The National Postal Museum is located off the beaten path for museums in DC…aka it is not located on the National Mall. However, it is next to Union Station, which I believe is a decent location. The museum is housed in the former Washington, DC City Post Office Building was designed by Daniel Burnham just a few years after Union Station. As expected the building is gorgeous. It is public building built during the early 1910s in the Beaux-Arts style. As a fun bit of urban planning trivia, I learned that cities were encouraged to build their main post offices as close to the railroad station as possible in order to facilitate the speedy and efficient sorting and delivering of the mail. Perhaps, this is part of the reason why when the railroad was moved from the National Mall to Union Station, the main post office moved from the Old Post Office, which was too small, to the museum’s current building after just 15 years of use.

The Main Lobby of the National Postal Museum

The Main Lobby of the National Postal Museum

The exhibits are super fun and interactive. I loved the largest stamp exhibit in the world, which houses some extremely rare stamps. In addition, there are so many mail-related artifacts from important events in history like a mailbox that survived 9/11 with all the mail inside intact, a letter on Titanic stationery and postmarked on board, and Amelia Earhart’s flight suit. One interesting artifact is the package that Harry Winston used to mail the Hope diamond to the Smithsonian. It is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that they decided to mail the diamond instead of hand-deliver it. Why?

Display of America's First Stamps

1847: America’s First Stamps

As far as public spaces go, the museum is excellent at being a museum. In terms of my own personal preferences I was happy that the museum was pleasantly populated, but did not have the mass crowds often found in the museums on the Mall. There are two large spaces: the main lobby, which has been restored to it’s original grandeur, and the atrium with actual vehicles that have been used to transport the mail throughout U.S. history. Unfortunately, neither of these rooms provide the gathering space for multiple uses like the Kogod Courtyard or even a quiet space or cafe to read a book and relax.

Atrium of the National Postal Museum

Atrium of the National Postal Museum

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and recommend that people spend a few hours or a day looking through all of the different exhibits. However, the museum does not have the malleability of other public spaces to accommodate additional uses.

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