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How One Collection Is Getting Its Groove Back

Revitalizing the National Postal Museum's Exhibit and Master & Reference Collections of U.S. Stamps

by Mary H. Lawson

Volume 7, Issue 4
October–December 1998

A new, permanent United States stamp exhibit will be installed in segments in the 100 pull-out frames adjacent to the National Postal Museum's Rarities Gallery beginning in winter 1998/99. The 300 exhibit pages will display regular issues of United States stamps from 1845 (postmaster provisionals) to 1997. Regular postage issued after 1997 will be added periodically. 

Eventually the exhibit will also include "back-of-the-book" stamp material. For non-philatelists this refers to the short-lived Confederate States of America stamp issues and to U.S. federal issues that are different in use from regular domestic postage—such as airmail, postage due, special delivery, official and revenue stamps. The deadline for the project is open ended. 

A Revival

The exhibit is only one part of a larger project involving the Museum's United States stamp collection. 

The design and assembly of the new stamp exhibit was the first of three interrelated projects created to stimulate the growth and use of the nation's U.S. stamp collection. 

The second was the expansion of the Master Collection of U.S. stamps. This is a definitive research collection of our best examples of mint, unused, and used material including postmaster provisional and Confederate stamps and proofs, reflecting printing and perforation variations. 

The third was the expansion of the secondary U.S. stamp collection (traditionally housed within stockbook albums) whose objects are used for exhibit rotation, research and photography. 

Integral to all three projects was the need to inventory our holdings of U.S. stamp material (with the obvious exclusion of donated specialized stamp collections). We would need to review not only the two collections mentioned above, but also material cataloged within the past five years and scattered caches with no known accession information. 

The completed inventory would indicate where we needed to aquire more material and distribute it between the three projects. 

The Inventory

The recent edition of Scott National album pages¹ was chosen to be the framework for the new stamp display. For this first phase of the three-part project, our inventory list reflects only those U.S. stamps cited on these Scott pages. (Stamp designs and varieties not cited on these exhibit pages will be inventoried and recorded in a final, comprehensive survey after the exhibit is mounted.) 

At present two computerized inventory lists exist. The first list is in exhibit-page order. Exhibited stamps (known by their Scott Catalogue number) are listed within the context of each page. 

Because the pages display stamps in random numerical Scott Catalogue number² order, the second list—an index to the first—was an absolute necessity in order to locate or reference any object. 

We now have inventoried the mint and/or unused U.S. material in the Master Collection, stockbooks, post-1987 U.S. Postal Service transfers and Universal Postal Union donations. The inventory list cites specific current counts within these sources. 

Stocking Up

The inventory has also exposed the gaps in our stock that would affect the completion of the exhibit. As a result we have analyzed the types and amounts of stamp material required to fill the present and future needs of the Master Collection, secondary collection and exhibit pages. 

To meet these needs, we have solicited the aid of the United States Postal Service. 

The U.S. Postal Service, which has supplied recent philatelic issues to the collection for years, has very generously agreed to give the new amounts of philatelic material requested for future issues and has fulfilled our request for more recent back issues that were desperately needed for the current exhibit. 

In an attempt to fill gaps in the older issues, we have resurrected material set aside as "duplicate" in the 1980s. We have finished the review and selection of good mint examples from this source and have inventoried them. Their reintroduction to the collection will be complete when they are given Found In Collection numbers and cataloged. 

For all of these accessions, item-level inventorying, cataloging and data entry has been or must be done.3 Now we hope to solicit donations of stamp material still needed for the projects. 

Unnatural Selection

To fill the lulls in inventorying and acquisition, we have selected exhibit and Master Collection material from the more recent stamp issues. We have even selected some early material for the Master Collection. 

Eventually we will verify the identity of stamp issues and select exhibitable material from old and current exhibit pages, the stockbooks, the duplicates, the USPS transfers and the UPU donations. But n ot until the "old and current exhibit pages" are dealt with. 

More Nasty Jobs that Someone Has to Do

While Collection Management has struggled with the above-mentioned work, Conservation has tackled the old, 1965-era exhibit pages. 

The job of the conservation technician has been to remove, rehouse, record and return the stamp material from these early pages for our review. Some of the stamps will rejoin the Master Collection or the stockbooks; some may be selected for the new exhibit. All of them were previously attached to pages with multiple layers of glassine hinges that have to be removed. 

Procedures for the removal were developed in conjunction with our contracted paper conservator. Hinge material is removed using methyl cellulose, tweezers (tongs), scalpels and microscope. Difficult hinge removals and repairs are reserved for the conservator. 

The conservation technician spent days practicing and perfecting hinge removal before approaching these former exhibit objects. Now months into the actual work, she and the conservator have yet to finish this set of pages because of the overwhelming demand generated by several other exhibit projects. 

And there is still more hinge removal in her future. Four of the nine pull-out panels of United States material currently on display have glassine hinges. 

Once she completes this phase, we will pass the newly selected exhibit material back to her for mounting. The worst of her work begins with the laborious creation of thousands of mylar enclosures meticulously attached to exhibit pages, the installation of objects, the photography. 

Those Who Have Toiled

Particular recognition is due to Kevin Allen, museum technician in Collection Services, for his outstanding work in creating and maintaining the computerized inventory, in managing and organizing all potential exhibit material and much more. 

And to Gordon Trotter, behind-the-scenes volunteer, for his extraordinary role as guest philatelic curator/mentor in the verification and selection of exhibit and Master Collection material. 

And to Siobhan Creem, conservation technician, for her invaluable work in hinge removal and upcoming exhibit object preparation. 

Others who have contributed generously to the project include Joseph Geraci (philatelic specialist), Ted Wilson (registrar) and Linda Edquist (conservation specialist). Helen Young is our invaluable contract conservator. 


It is important to this story to realize that the normal expansion of the United States stamp collection ceased for three to four years during and following the relocation of the entire collection to the new museum site. Through the generous cooperation of the United States Postal Service, back issues from 1992-1995/96 were given to supplement our collection and the regular transfer of new issues has been reestablished. Mystic Stamp Company has also been a major donor to the collection. 

In winter 1996–97 the Museum renewed its commitment to its U.S. collection. 

The Collection Management Department has continued its inventory and rehousing of United States plate proofs, revenue die proofs and stamps, commemorative panels and presentation albums. 

Collection Management, which assumed responsibility for the U.S. stamp project, has simultaneously had to contend with major interior construction in object storage, the relocation of one-third of the collection, other accession, loan and exhibit preparation work and numerous special projects. 


1) The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue and the numbers its assigns to United States and international stamps is a standard U.S. reference source in philately. Scott also produces pre-printed album pages for the display of stamp collections.

2) To further complicate matters, Scott Catalogue has periodically assigned new numbers to particular stamp issues. Our inventory list has had to cross-reference current Catalogue numbers to those earlier numbers. And we have had to verify the identification of all the stamp material against the 1997 Scott Catalogue (as a current standard).

3) From the registrarial perspective, accountability for the project is time consuming. We have already created four 1998 accessions (purchases, transfers, Found In Collection) totaling thousands of objects strictly related to this project.