Museums and Society course


[written by first year M.A. student Catherine Southwick]

Dr. Juliet Bellow is teaching a course this semester called “Museums and Society,” in which we are discussing both the history of museums and their relationship to the public.  In addition to museum theory and case study readings, each week students visit a DC museum and write a response that analyzes the museum experience in terms of our current class topics. The response below is one I wrote for our class discussion on the “non-art” museum.


National Postal Museum

The “non-art” museum I visited this week was the Postal Museum. Before attending, I wondered what might attract a potential visitor to this museum. In the most basic terms, while not on the Mall, the museum is in a prime location next to Union Station and conducive to a brief stop-in for tourists. As it is part of the Smithsonian network of museums, it is free and therefore a no-risk investment for visitors (i.e. – no obligation to spend several hours to “get your money’s worth”). Also, people may feel less intimidated visiting a museum about something they experience in their everyday lives, while in turn, a museum honoring a seemingly “ordinary” governmental body adds a sense of legitimacy through the promotion of its institutional history.

The museum is inside the City Post Office building, which was in use as such from 1914-1986. The Postal Museum was established in 1993 after a significant renovation. The most convenient entrance from Union Station allows the visitor to view a beautifully preserved portion of the old Post Office before descending to the museum. The museum itself is organized around a large, central exhibition hall, which has smaller galleries as offshoots. The central hall features various historical modes of transportation for the mail, including a train car, an old mail carriage, a plane, and a contemporary mail truck. The text panels and video monitors suggest that the postal system has come a long way, and emphasizes the hardships posed by early mail delivery methods. One side gallery takes the visitor through a recreated, dimly-lit forest through which the early mail carriers had to traverse, leaving ax marks on trees as their guide.

I noticed certain obvious differences in this museum as opposed to an art museum. There were no guards, and no staff at all on the lower level on the day that I visited (a volunteer greets guests on the upper level before the escalators to the museum). Wall panels are large, colorful, and numerous, which is typical of science or history museums. The objects aren’t left to speak for themselves, as art objects often are, but require explanatory text to tie them together.

This museum also seemed to promote a more pressing agenda than an art museum might appear to have. The exhibits tended to emphasize the significance of the postal system in American history, such as the gallery devoted to wartime mail and the exhibition on postal workers’ involvement in national security (identifying mail bombs). As the postal service faces serious financial trouble, the museum seemed anxious to prove its own importance. One text panel affirmed that “real mail is alive and well and more creative than ever.” Despite this not-so-hidden agenda, I was pleasantly surprised by the museum, and I felt that it presented material in an interesting, innovative, non-overwhelming way.

One thought on “Museums and Society course

  1. This is a great summary of your visit. I WISH we could have smiling, question-answering staff available throughout our exhibits and not just upstairs (oh and maybe a cafe, yum) but we don’t have the resources. Your summary reminded me just how important this is. Thanks for writing this up and for sharing it with the interwebz. Good luck in your course. 🙂

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