- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

What’s in a tiny postage stamp? A lot of thinking, artistry and hard work, according to “Art of the Stamp,” an exhibit at the National Postal Museum in Northeast.

Stamp artists face the tough challenge of depicting American grandeur on a minuscule scale, whether the topic is American landscapes, larger-than-life jazz legends or superhuman athletic achievements.

The rewards are great, too. Once the stamp is completed, which sometimes takes up to two years, the artist has a large audience: all the people who send and receive letters with that particular stamp.

“This exhibit gives us a chance to show that there is artistic expression in stamps,” says Esther Washington, head of education for the National Postal Museum. “You may use stamps every day and not really know how they come together.”

So what’s in it for children?

Well, says Ms. Washington, aside from being pieces of art, stamps help tell this nation’s history.

“Stamps are art, history and culture in the miniature,” she says. “The different topics represent everything about America.”

Stamps depicting landscapes, such as the majestic Mount McKinley, can help teach geography, while stamps depicting political and wartime events, such as the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, can help teach history.

“It’s a wonderful enhancement to any curriculum,” she says.

Younger children may enjoy stamps featuring dinosaurs, locomotives, antique cars and cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny.

Adults might find it amusing that the Bugs Bunny stamp, which came out in 1997, is one of the most controversial stamps in the nation’s history. Critics thought the cartoon character would displace more historically significant subjects.

Another hotly debated stamp was the Elvis Presley stamp that came out in 1993. The U.S. Postal Service gave the public an opportunity to vote on whether the stamp should depict a young or older Elvis. The people chose young Elvis, while members of Congress debated the worthiness of the rock ‘n’ roll singer as a stamp subject.

The stamp has since become the most popular commemorative stamp.

The current exhibit, on display through Feb. 24, features more than 100 original stamp illustrations spanning more than five decades. One of the most famous artists included is Norman Rockwell, whose 1960s Boy Scout stamp, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, is showcased.

Choosing a topic or subject for future stamps is largely up to the public, which annually sends about 50,000 letters with suggestions to the Postal Service.

Visitors also learn that the first stamps were issued in 1847 and pictured Benjamin Franklin (5 cents) and George Washington (10 cents).

Next to the temporary exhibit is a whole room of historic stamps from all around the globe.

Children and adults who wish to take their interest in stamps to the next level can call and request a lecture about stamp collection and preservation, or philately, by museum conservationists.

The talks include information on climate, lighting, housing, handling and mounting conducive to stamp preservation.

Aside from the stamp exhibit, this museum also has plenty of family fun to offer in its permanent exhibits.

Early 20th-century mail airplanes hang from the museum’s 90-foot ceiling, and interactive touch-screen computer programs enable visitors to make their own postcards as well as study the demographics of their neighborhoods.

“Kids love the interactive components and the postcard machine,” Ms. Washington says. “This is a family-friendly place where both adults and kids can have fun and learn at the same time.”


Location: The National Postal Museum is at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, next to Union Station.

Directions: From Maryland, take New York Avenue NE into the District. Turn left on First Street NE. Drive 12 blocks and make a right at the corner of Massachusetts and First Street.

From Virginia: Take 395 north and exit at Sixth Street SE. Make a left onto Sixth Street. At Maryland Avenue, make a left and go one block past Union Station. The museum will be on the right.

The museum is also accessible via Metro’s Red Line, which stops across the street at Union Station.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas. Reservations for guided tours must be made three weeks in advance.

Admission and parking: Admission is free. The National Postal Museum does not have a parking lot. Street parking is available near the museum, and all-day paid parking is available at Union Station.

Information: Call 202/357-2991 or visit www.postalmuseum.si.edu. For more information on stamp collecting and preservation, or philately, call 202/633-9377.

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