Out of the Vault and onto the Web: Digitizing the Certified Plate Proof Collection


By Emily Smith, Contract Registrar


Prior to beginning the large scale digitization of the Certified Plate Proof Collection at the National Postal Museum I had no idea what the term philatelist meant let alone what a certified plate proof was. My background in museum collections management made the job of digitizing a large museum collection an ideal opportunity and little did I know a major learning experience! I now understand the importance of the certified plate proof to the philatelist.

Refer to caption
Contract Registrar Emily Smith, seated in front of the BEP cabinets, records information about each plate proof before it leaves for scanning and upon its return.

To clear things up a philatelist is basically someone who studies and collects stamps. A certified plate proof is the last printed proof from the engraved metal plate before printing the stamps at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The proof sheet had to be examined for any flaws and once perfect, certified (literally, signed off on) by the chief engraver. Certified plate proofs are thus the master copy of each postage stamp, showing exactly how they were intended to look. The certified plate proof is the only record for each plate because once the stamp went into mass production the metal plate was melted down in order to be used again. So basically all that is left to us today is the paper record for philatelists to study and for museum visitors to enjoy.

Refer to caption
1-dollar Western Cattle in Storm Plate Proof

I was hired specifically to take these extremely rare and highly prized museum objects out of the vault and make them available to a large scale audience which includes philatelists and non-philatelists alike. Due to the sheer size and volume of the collection (close to 40,000!) the way to accomplish this task was to digitize a sampling of the collection. After consulting with the Philatelic Curators and members of our museum Council of Philately and taking into account the time frame and budget of the project we were able to decide which certified plate proofs would make the cut. Criteria ranged from rarity and design to their importance to philatelic research and study. It was also important to have one example of each U.S. stamp from 1894 to the 1960’s represented in digital format. Over 2,000 images will be made available on NPM’s virtual museum.

Refer to caption
Scanning a plate proof at National Geographic

Digitization is a relatively new concept in the museum world with many museums just starting to think about how to best serve their audiences by using technology to make collections more readily available. Since the certified plate proofs were too large to be scanned by equipment available at the National Postal Museum, we worked with National Geographic to get the job done. The workmanship of the engraving is quite impressive and an art form in and of itself. For philatelists, even an engraved line or number that is a little bit different from one postage stamp to the next increases its rarity and value. The highly trained digital imaging technicians at National Geographic Imaging used advanced scanning equipment which enabled us to capture all the important details of each proof. In order to get a closer look and more information about the work that went into making this project a reality click here. While looking at the “real McCoy” can never be replaced with a digital image, technology can make objects available to a much larger and farther reaching audience than museums ever imagined possible. I am thankful to have been a part of this project at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum!