Annual Smithsonian Weekend 2020

In the wake of the coronavirus many people now realize the importance of communicating. Americans, more than ever, are now relying on the mail to help maintain a sense of normalcy, to stay in touch with friends and family, and to receive essential goods. The museum’s vast collection allows us to highlight similar themes by looking at the story of the mail during natural disasters, war and other pandemics such as the 1918 Flu.

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Greetings and welcome to the virtual National Postal Museum.

My name is Elliot Gruber and I am the director of the museum.

I know the plan was for you to have an amazing visit to the museum where we could give you a special tour and experience.

So let me tell you a little bit about what you will see the next time you come to Washington, DC.

Together with Dan Piazza the Postal Museum's Chief Curator, we will also show you a short video.

As well as talk about Covid-19 and the importance of staying in touch and communicating, especially during these challenging times.

When I talk to people about the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, most say we must be a museum that displays a lot of stamps and tells the history of the US Postal Service.

We are and we do.

But let me try to add a bit to that perspective.

Stamps are a unique window into American History.

They are a reflection of what our country deems important and chooses to remember.

Stamps commemorate and memorialize our victories, our leaders, our natural beauty and so much more.

Since 1847, nearly 175 years, we have used postage stamps.

The first two stamps featured George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who by the way, was our first postmaster general.

So another way of looking at stamps is that the Postal Museum can tell any story in American history.

And with the best U.S philatelic collection, that canvas is very large.

But the majority of our stamps, more than 50 percent are not from the United States.

So our canvas just got a whole lot bigger.

And do you know which Smithsonian museum has the largest collection?

No, it's not the Postal Museum but I appreciate the thought.

The National Museum of Natural History has the largest collection.

And do you know which museum has the second largest collection of any Smithsonian museum?

Yes, the National Postal Museum.

We have six million items in our collection.

And yes, much of our collection is stamp related from original stamps to stamp art.

By the way, we have six thousand pieces of original stamp art including the likes of Norman Rockwell.

But we also have printing presses, trucks, buses, planes.

Well technically the planes are on loan to us from Air and Space.

And even a Model T that was used to deliver mail in the snow with skis.

We also tell stories that may surprise you.

We have letters that flew aboard the Hindenburg that still show the burnt edges.

We tell that story.

We have a flight suit from Amelia Earhart.

Did you know that she subsidized her aviation exploits by taking letters and bringing them up in her plane?

We tell that story.

We also have items from the Titanic.

On that fateful voyage there were five postal clerks three from the United States, two from Great Britain.

At 12:30 a.m. there was a sighting of several of the clerks carrying up the registered mailbags in the hope of saving them.

It turned out that was the last sighting of any of the postal clerks.

All five postal clerks perished.

We have one of their pocket watches.

It is permanently stopped at 1:27 am.

The Titanic officially sank less than an hour later.

But why does the Postal Museum tell the Titanic story?

Officially the ship was called the RMS Titanic.

What does the RMS stand for? Royal Mail Ship.

Because the Titanic carried mail under the auspices of his majesty's postal authorities.

Today, we are living through unprecedented times and it is especially during these uncertain times that we seek some sense of normalcy, of reaching out and staying connected with friends and family.

The National Postal Museum tells this story too.

Here is a short two and a half minute video that talks about the important and innate need that we all have to communicate with each other.

Following this video Dan Piazza the museum's Chief Curator will bring this story to the present.

I look forward to seeing each of you on your next trip to Washington, DC where Dan and I can welcome you to your National Postal Museum.

Until then, stay connected and be well.

[Music]

Hi, my name is Dan Piazza and I'm the Chief Curator at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington DC.

The video you just saw was produced back in 2013 when NPM was preparing to open our William H. Gross Stamp Gallery.

It was meant to convey the power that mail has to connect us during times of extreme adversity.

It's shown continuously in the gallery.

Next to real postal objects and pieces of mail that survive various natural and man-made disasters.

It is, I think, one of the more moving exhibits that we have.

For example, when it opened this was one of the first permanent installations of the World Trade Center related artifacts in Washington, DC featuring mail and postmarking devices from the Church Street Station Post Office that had served the towers since they opened.

A reminder that each tower was a mail route and a Zip code that no longer existed.

I think we're living through another of these watershed moments right now.

The postal system has operated continually through the Covid-19 outbreak with retail acceptance and handling procedures adapting to social distancing requirements and making it possible for the mail to go through.

As a result, people are reevaluating the importance of mail in their personal lives.

Just a few short months ago many probably believed that they could live without a postal service.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the daily mail has become a lifeline.

Its arrival brings not only a desperately needed sense of normalcy in a chaotic time but also groceries, prescriptions, supplies, books for distance learning.

Package sorting equipment is operating around the clock at levels exceeding even the usual December rush.

The mail also satisfies human needs for contact.

Individuals and groups have used it to stay connected during the public health lockdowns.

One well-known greeting card company distributed millions of free cards to encourage people to reach out to one another through the mail.

In another sign of the times, a recent industry study showed that the sale of birthday, wedding, and graduation cards has plummeted.

While encouragement and sympathy cards have sadly become best sellers.

Changes in the rhythm and patterns of our society are reflected in the mail stream.

Americans are also currently examining the important role that mail can play in our shared national and civic life.

Earlier this year, a significant portion of the Census was conducted by mail and the results will have important effects both for congressional representation and the appropriation of federal funds.

Several local and special elections have been conducted almost entirely by mail already and the general elections this fall appear headed that way too.

The opportunities and the problems presented by this method of voting will likely be a major news story for the rest of the year.

Whatever the outcome, the debate itself echoes the founder’s vision that the post office should contribute to an informed citizenry and deeper public engagement in the political process.

And so over the coming months and years, National Postal Museum curators will be working to make sure that the Smithsonian's collection includes objects reflecting this period in our shared history.

We will be acquiring ballots and other material documenting the trend toward voting by mail, personal protective equipment and signage from postal buildings used during the pandemic, letters, cards, and communications sent and received, including expressions of thanks addressed to postal workers for their work on the front lines which enables much of the sheltering in place that the rest of us are doing.

We will be working with the unions to collect oral histories, photographs, and objects from postal employees who worked through the crisis, from clerks and letter carriers, to package handlers and forklift operators in both rural areas and urban hot spots.

We will also preserve the stories of postal HQ staff who worked on the crisis management team.

All of this work will be done to ensure that in the years to come, Smithsonian exhibitions reflect this moment in history and make possible scholarly research, public education and online interpretation.

Thank you for your support of the Smithsonian.

And may all of you, and those you love, be safe and well.