- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

The old world of postage stamps and the new world of hand-held computers merge, quite nicely, in a former downtown post office.

At the National Postal Museum in Washington, visitors can borrow a Hewlett Packard IPAQ hand-held computer to take a tour of a special exhibit of postage stamps on loan from the collection of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, herself the most-pictured woman on postage. “The Queen’s Own: Stamps That Changed the World” is an exhibit containing some of the world’s rarest stamps and runs through Jan. 11.

Because Britain was the first nation to issue postage stamps, in 1840, its monarchs have been intimately involved in the process. Queen Victoria was depicted on the first stamps, and the monarch’s portrait has served to identify postage as coming from the United Kingdom. Since then, every other nation has had to print its name on its adhesives.

The items on display in the National Postal Museum — a part of the Smithsonian Institution — are but a fraction of the collection begun in the late 1800s by the Duke of York, who later went on to become King George V, the present queen’s grandfather. His son King George VI kept up the stamp collection during his 16-year reign, as Queen Elizabeth II does today, albeit with the help of a curator.

The hand-held computers provide written and audio commentary on 12 items of particular note, such as the early trial designs for the first stamps, examples of different test printings to guard against reuse of postage, and rare stamps such as the Mauritius “Post Office” error stamps.

The narration on the hand-held computers is keyed to a central menu screen, to pace you in your examination. The special items are labeled on the display case. Touch a number and you get a narration as well as a link to “bonus material” that adds to one’s understanding of the item.

Museum officials say the hand-helds have held up well — none of the styluses used to activate the touch screens has been lost; only one unit’s liquid crystal display screen was broken. The devices are kept charged when not on loan, and headphones plug into a jack on the bottom of the device.

The hand-held devices, a museum announcement says, “were designed to meet the needs of multiple audiences and offer a wide variety of options for visitors,” including audio features and on-screen, large-format text augment the experiences of visually or hearing impaired visitors.

It’s a smart idea that is catching on. I’m told that units will be placed in other Smithsonian museums soon, allowing visitors at other exhibits the chance to learn even more about a given display.

Audio, self-paced tours of museum exhibits have been around for decades. By moving to hand-held computers, however, the chance exists to bring multimedia into play: more narrative, other sounds, short video clips and illustrations. With emerging wireless technology, it is possible to eliminate the need for a stylus and touch screen. Just pause in front of a given display and the proper narration is played.

The Ford Motor Company Fund, charitable arm of the auto and truck maker, deserves credit for funding this initiative, as does the National Postal Museum. You can get a sense of the display from the National Postal Museum’s Web site, www.postalmuseum.si.edu/index.html.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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