Digital Engagement at the Postal Museum

Yes, that’s right – I’m talking about the postal museum, a museum about those places we hate to go, with those long lines, to weigh boxes and ship them back to Amazon or something, whose name has turned into a noun which often means (according to Wikipedia) “becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment.” I’m talking about the museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to everything postal.

And yes, I had absolutely NO interested in going there. I could care less about stamps. Which is precisely why I went.

At work I was challenged with going to a museum about a topic I cared little about to observe how the digital interactives facilitated my experience with the content and potentially generated an interest. Today, while attending the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Conference, I walked right past the Postal Museum. And in I went.

Long story short: I loved it! I could have seen spending 2-3 hours there, with my whole family. The three videos below, highlighting different digital interactives, show how an experience was created that, in each instance, generated a seed of interest in me.

The first interactive, geared towards families and children, invites you to browse a collection of stamp images – photos of real stamps – to create a virtual collection.

I found this interactive effective in part because it asked me to do what people do who love stamps – personalize a collection that reflects my identity and/or interests – and then, upon opening the email once I returned home featuring images from my collection, reading the encouraging “Now keep going! Start a physical collection by acquiring real stamps with personal meaning.” It was a nice arc from in-museum to at-home experience.

The second one – geared for adults – is a form of open collections, which can be experienced directly on one’s own (for the more adventurous) or starting with the digital interactive.

Unlike with the child-oriented virtual stamp collecting, this interactive is ALL about connecting me with the original object, ones I cared little about before entering the room but, after exploring their digital replica, made me quite interested in seeking out and finding the original. I experienced something similar – in the gems and minerals room – at the Yale Peabody Museum: there’s an interactive that asks three fun questions and then reveals a rock or gem in the room (with instructions on how to find it). Digital interactives can work well when they generate a need to go connect with the original on display.

The third exhibit was for families and children, like the first. Rather than ask the visitor to replicate the actions of stamp collectors, now the visitor is asked to step into the role of a real postal employee, using their digital tools of the trade. Role playing is fun, as is using real tools (albeit simulated ones).

So I entered the Museum not caring much about stamps or the postal delivery service. I left fascinated by what I learned and, equally so, by how I had learned it.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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