My two boys, 4 and 8, love picking out a sheet of fun new stamps whenever we go to the post office, but that’s about as far as their stamp appreciation has gone in the past. After our visit to the newly-opened William H. Gross Stamp Gallery at the National Postal Museum, we all have a new admiration for stamps.
The exhibits include much that is interactive or hands-on, and all of it was presented simply enough for my 8 year old to easily grasp (while my 4 year old grasped what he could on his level).
The new gallery was constructed in the space that once housed Capitol City Brewing Company and opened in September 2013. In the lobby just outside the gallery, we took time to appreciate the gorgeous Beaux Arts architectural details, including historic post office boxes and lots of marble and bronze.
TVs, roughly seven feet tall, in the lobby caught my 4-year-old’s eye with footage of trains.
The stamp gallery is divided into six sections, and while there is some logic to starting at the gallery’s entrance, you can really move through the exhibit in any direction or order without taking away from your experience.
The entire gallery is bright and attractive, with giant images of stamps popping out everywhere, from ceilings, walls, and windows. In the gallery’s first room, we stared at several TVs of different sizes at varying heights and angles flipping through close-ups of stamps (Martin Luther King, Jr., animals, astronauts, 9/11 firefighters, and so on).
We also glimpsed the world’s first postage stamp, which is revealed by sliding a handle up, and other stamps with historical significance.
A section focusing on the rarest stamps includes a short video in a small room explaining the story of the Inverted Jenny stamp, the most famous stamp printing error. We took a look at the stamp on display and a small printing press similar to the one that made the Inverted Jenny, then moved through the next area.
The focus is on U.S. history, and the exhibits use artifacts and text to share the connection to stamps. For instance, in a section on the stamp commemorating Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic, her flight suit is displayed next to pictures of the stamps honoring her.
Text and video tell of the mail she carried on her flights and of her disappearance. My 8-year-old could have spent more time in this section which also had displays on the Titanic, 9/11, and the devices used to cancel or mark mail.
By far the highlight for my boys was the pair of computers that allow you to design your own stamp. The simple program allows you to, well, put your own stamp on a stamp. You can take a photo of yourself or choose from drawings and photos already in the program, then add color, price, country name, and move things around a bit.
Your final design can be sent as a jpeg to an email address (though it cannot be used as a real stamp). Next to the computers are scattered stamps, already cancelled, from the U.S. and around the world that can be placed in provided envelopes to start your own collection (limit: 6 stamps).
Three large kiosks nearby house digital images of stamps; we created a virtual stamp collection with 10 of our favorite images and emailed them to my address.
This part of the gallery also includes a look at mail in other countries with a few mailboxes and a wall of stamps from around the world (lift a handle to see the stamps underneath). I browsed a small area delving into stamp design and production but my boys weren’t interested beyond picking up the audio devices to listen for a minute.
We also did not spend a lot of time in the National Stamp Salon, which has the appearance of a serious research room with many pullout cases housing important stamps.
We spent about an hour and a half in the gallery, though my 8-year-old would have liked more time and my 4-year-old less. We did also enjoy the rest of the museum, especially the big rig cab to sit in, the mail sorting bins to toss small boxes into, and the cave like route depicting long-ago mail delivery.
So much of the story of mail includes a focus on transportation, which makes the museum inherently interesting to my kids. On our Friday afternoon visit, we practically had the museum to ourselves. There were only a few other children in the museum and several adults sans kids.
We had a relaxed, educational visit and will definitely be back.
- The museum is open 10am to 5:30pm daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free.
- I’ve had luck with metered street parking near the museum on my visits. Union Station (red line on Metro) is next door and has a parking garage.
- The museum doesn’t have a cafe, but there is a food court and many casual eateries in Union Station. The Dubliner (Irish pub) is also nearby, and I’ve spotted food trucks in the area on occasion.
- Within the small gift shop, there is a counter to buy stamps. The selection is better than at my local post office, and I let my kids each pick out a sheet to buy.
- The museum regularly holds family programs; check the museum’s website for details.
- Free postcards are located behind the information desk in the main lobby — a freebie my son loved picking up to mail to his class at school. You can also get a free postcard in the Systems at Work exhibit.
- The woman at the information desk gave us a simple scavenger hunt sheet, mainly for the stamp gallery. We were plenty busy exploring the museum and didn’t need an extra game to complete on this visit.
- Restrooms are located downstairs, a bit far from the stamp gallery, so plan ahead.
Photos by Kathleen Seiler Neary.