Introducing "Systems at Work"

12.14.2011
Blog

Tad Suiter, Assistant Curator, Systems at Work

From wedding invitations to legal documents to twenty dollars in a card from grandma, we all depend on the postal service to get our mail where it is going, and to do so quickly, affordably, and reliably.

You drop a letter in a blue box. Days later, it’s at the address you wrote on the envelope-- clear across the country for less than 50-cents. But how does it work? How does the mail get from point A to point B?

This is one of the most commonly-asked questions by visitors. The National Postal Museum is proud to present Systems at Work, a new permanent exhibit dedicated to answering that very question. The exhibit explores the processing technology of the postal system and how those systems have evolved over the last two hundred years.

Refer to caption
A view into the exhibit, Systems at Work.

At the center of the exhibit is an immersive 270° film experience that brings you into a modern mail processing facility, following letters, magazines, and packages as they join the approximately 700 million other pieces of mail that are sorted and delivered to 150 million addresses.

The service depends on an astonishing network of people and technology that collects, carries, sorts, and delivers the mail. Seeing the size of the facilities in this network, and watching the mail as it flies past is a truly impressive experience and conveys the system’s impressive scale and (perhaps surprisingly) advanced technology.

As visitors pass through the exhibit, they will have an opportunity to explore the history that brought us to this point-- the technological innovations that have allowed the postal system to keep up with a nation that has changed radically and frequently over the last two hundred years. In 1808, a newspaper carries the latest news of a still-young nation to people hundreds of miles away. In the 1930s, a crate of eggs journeys from Seattle, Washington, to Alaska. In the twenty-first century, optical character readers process more than 10 letters per second.

The exhibit offers a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of America’s post office through time. It is a long, continuous history of implementing new technologies and processes, including ships, planes, rural free delivery, fluorescent inks, ZIP codes, computers, scanners, and automated sorting machinery the size of a football field, to name but a few.

While the very question of the postal service’s survival is a hotly debated topic among Americans, few understand how the service operates. Today’s postal system is under intense public scrutiny. While mail volume shrinks, the number of addresses steadily increases. The cost of continuing to provide mail service to everyone while revenues decrease puts the US Postal Service in a Catch-22.

Systems at Work brings visitors into the heart of postal operations, and puts the evolution of that system in historical context. The goal of the exhibit is to take a vast network that most people never see, and make it visible, and help Americans better understand the intricacies of the postal debate.