Located next to Union Station off the beaten path of the usual tourist attractions and other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, the National Postal Museum truly fits the "hidden gem" cliché. When we visited last summer during peak tourist season, we had the place nearly all to our ourselves. What surprised me most is just how awesome this museum is for kids. I had no idea! They have done a great job integrating many hands-on and interactive components in their exhibits that make the Museum's potentially ho-hum subject matter fun and engaging.
The centerpiece of the Museum is the soaring Atrium, complete with overhead airmail planes and mail moving vehicles that kids can explore. My daughter loved pretending to commandeer the wheel of a huge semi-truck, riding inside an Old West stagecoach, and exploring a rail car to learn how mail was sorted on moving trains en route to their destinations.
On the upper level, you'll find the the Stamp Gallery, every stamp lover’s dream come true, containing the largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world. When you enter the first part of the Gallery, you are surrounded by huge, vibrant video images that bring all different kinds of stamps to life, from cartoon characters and sports greats to world landmarks and historical figures.
The adults in our group enjoyed exploring and re-living important moments in history, pop culture, science, music and more told through the stamps displayed throughout the Gallery. Don’t miss the world’s first ever postage stamp from 1840, a profile of young Queen Victoria, and one of the world’s most famous printing errors – the 1918 Inverted Jenny. This wasn’t even on my radar, but the backstory is so interesting! I bet you're Googling it right now, aren't you?
There are three interactive exhibits in the Stamp Gallery area that kept both the kids and adults engaged for quite some time. The first is a virtual stamp collection exhibit where you can sort through the Museum’s collection via touchscreen, drag and drop stamps into your collection, and even email them to yourself.
Once your virtual collection is complete, there is a table of hundreds of real stamps to sort through and take home. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I got into this! I found the stamps spanning all different eras and themes fascinating, and even remembered some of the stamps from my childhood. And finally, there is a station where you can create your own stamp design, complete with self-portrait!
While upstairs is all about stamps and postage, downstairs is all about getting the mail to its intended destination. In addition to all of the various mail moving transports used throughout history, the highlight here for my daughter was the package sorting station. She got a kick out of playing postal worker, racing against the clock to sort and toss packages into their correct city bins as quickly as possible.
All in, we spent about three hours exploring the Museum, which is about two hours longer than I expected! We will definitely be back again and suggest it to visitors who are looking for something different. It's also a great alternative on days when the weather isn’t ideal for doing the typical National Mall walking tour circuit. As with all Smithsonian museums, admission is free, and the proximity to public transportation, dining and shopping at Union Station make this a great outing or day trip the whole family will enjoy.
Tip: In the lobby behind the Information Desk, you will find free postcards. Take a few minutes to write a note to someone. There is a full-service post office on the bottom level of the museum next to the gift shop. Ask the clerk to hand cancel your postcard with the special National Postal Museum stamp!
Hands-on experiences like the National Postal Museum will open your kids' minds and create memories that will last a lifetime. Check out our post on experience gifts for kids to learn more about giving kids experiences instead of things.
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