“Best of the Decade” with Postal Museum Curators

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As a new decade approaches, we here at ATM thought it a good time to reflect on the last—asking Smithsonian curators to weigh in on their favorite exhibits and acquisitions since 2000.

Historian and curator Nancy Pope has been with the National Postal Museum since its inception. An expert in postal history, she curated the museum's opening exhibits in 1993.

Joining her is Cheryl Ganz, chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. Ganz has been on staff since 2005 and is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to the history of zeppelin mail, especially from the 1933 Graf Zeppelin Chicago flight and the Hindenburg.

What were you working on at the turn of the last decade?

Pope: Oddly enough, aside from curatorial duties, one of my main projects was designing and running the museum’s original Web site. Because we work in a small museum, staff can often be found helping out in areas outside their field, especially when any site we did at that time had to be done for free. I remember spending far too many hours on weekends trying to find free backgrounds, images and “toys” to keep the site lively.

(Ganz, busy writing her doctoral dissertation, was not yet working at the museum.)

What was your favorite exhibit from the past decade? Why?

Pope: I’d have to choose Airmail in America. This was a particularly challenging exhibit because the footprint is minuscule. The Post Office ran the nation’s first airmail service (1918-1927). That original work and the funds from airmail contracts created the nation’s commercial aviation system. This is a wide, wonderful and sometimes wacky story. Unfortunately, my only option for telling it in the museum was in a space no larger than a suburban house’s family room. Cutting this huge story down to its most basic components was one of the most difficult exhibit challenges I have faced. Fortunately for my personal sanity, we were able to present much of the rest of the story through our Web site.

Ganz: Delivering Hope: FDR & Stamps of the Great Depression, the current exhibit, is my favorite because it places stamps in historical context by telling the story of postage stamps and their impact on everyday lives, in politics and in the relationship of a president and his postmaster general. FDR used the radio and postage stamps to reach every household in America with his message of optimism. You do not need to be a stamp collector or know anything about stamps to learn and enjoy this exhibit.

What was your favorite addition to the collections in the past decade?

Ganz: Two favorite additions are a piece of mail written on board the Titanic and mailed at one of its stops before crossing the Atlantic and part of the stamp collection, including philatelic tools, of the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. An online story about Wiesenthal will debut soon.

Pope: Without question, the answer would be a postal sorting table. In and of itself, the table presents the story of contemporary postal operations in a large city. But it is much more than that. It is a sorting table from the Church Street Post Office in New York City. This was the post office that handled mail for the World Trade Center complex. The table, used by city letter carrier Emma Thornton, is marked E. Thornton at the top. The pigeon holes are clearly marked with names such as Windows on the World and Cantor Fitzgerald Securities. Emma’s mail route, 24D, covered floors 77 through 110 of the north tower. I was fortunate enough to make Emma’s acquaintance, and she was gracious enough to allow the museum to videotape her story.

What has surprised you the most about how your job has changed in the last ten years?

Pope: I would say something that is not so much surprising, as evolving. What has changed so much about my job is not the job itself (although it has certainly had its twists and turns), but how the subject matter my job is based in has changed. Society’s relationship to mail and the post has undergone a dramatic transformation during this time. The changing nature of communication continues to be a fascinating study.

Ganz: Computer technology is always changing. This has improved so many aspects of working with the philatelic collections, from how the museum manages data, to how it creates displays, to how the Web site connects to the larger world.

What anniversaries, events, or people are you looking forward to celebrating or commemorating with an exhibit in the coming decade?

Ganz: Besides my enthusiasm for the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, to open in 2012, two very exciting exhibits are planned for the future: In late summer 2010, an exhibit on the 125th anniversary of the National Philatelic Collection will trace the growth of the collection to six million objects, and in 2012, NPM will showcase two of the largest post offices in the twentieth century in Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic (working title).

Pope: Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express service. I have always been amused by the romanticization of this service thanks to America’s continuing love affair with the Wild West. We will be upgrading our exhibit, and the museum will be offering a number of related public programs throughout the year. In 2011, the museum will be celebrating the birth of airmail in America. It was in February of that year that Fred Wiseman flew the 20-some miles from Petaluma to Santa Rosa in just two days! There’s nothing like the early years of any great new technology. And then of course there will be the Civil War anniversaries. I hope to bring the Civil War story back to the museum. The museum is able to present an intriguing way of approaching the story of the Civil War—through that of a service mandated to connect the nation.

Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming weeks.

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