Smithsonian Institutions - National Postal Museum & William H Gross Stamp Gallery
Our team had the honor of working on large projects for the US National Postal Museum as well as the William H Gross Stamp Gallery. In 1994, SIRIS principal, Glen Hopkins, served as a project manager on a US Postal Museum renovation. In 2012, the team hired us to do additional work. All told, we’ve been involved in every addition and renovation to the Smithsonian Postal Museum since its initial design in 1990.
Daneil Burnham, a renowned architect, constructed the original building back in 1900—today, the National Register of Historic Sites includes it as an historic landmark in the center of Washington D.C. Despite concerns regarding the interest in a museum highlighting the postal service, the building won plaudits from top reviewers, including a craftsman award and an architecture award. As the founding director James Bruns said, “Media praise of the museum has been nothing short of spectacular. Media accolades include such phrases as “First Class Delivery for Postal Museum”, “Pushing the Envelope”, “New Postal Museum Gets Stamp of Approval,” and “The New Postal Museum Delivers.”
Political Challenges Overcome
Initially, few wanted to touch this second project. Even those who promoted the idea weren’t certain how they were going to market it or who would want to visit a museum dedicated to stamps. Meanwhile, we also had to contend with touchy political dynamics. Projects leaders at the USPS and the Smithsonian had different perspectives, but we acted as a mediator. From delivery issues to other key decisions, we included everyone in the communications process and worked hard to meet everyone’s needs.
Everyone saw us as an apolitical actor that just wanted to do what was best for everyone involved.
While the Smithsonian is steeped in history, it had never before finished a project on time or within budget. Because of funding constraints, the museum had to be designed, constructed and opened in 36 months, so failure was not an option. When we stepped in, we implemented new processes for communication within the Smithsonian that are still used to this day. The museum director would later say “Thanks in large measure to Glen’s professionalism and expertise, the project was delivered ahead of schedule (33 months) and on budget.” And a second project we also finished on time and under budget. We’re rather proud of this record of service.
Attracting Diverse Visitors
Philatelists find stamps interesting, and you could likely build a museum just around stamps if it’s only collectors you’re wanting to attract. But US Postal Service history cannot be reduced to only stamps.
Exhibits-wise, the goal was to develop a highly interactive museum environment, one that was especially suited for children. USPS history is more interesting than one may think. Recall that both the Pony Express and the famous Iditarod dogsled race are a part of its story. Besides being attractive and entertaining, the museum also had to accommodate a collection that includes what some call the largest and most diverse collection of 16 million objects. We brought together the exhibit designers and architects to tell this complete story in a compelling way. That meant making it both immersive and interactive. And we wanted the Smithsonian and USPS to love their own museum—which they do.
The second project was indeed more philatelic. The Smithsonian’s stamp collection is its second-most valuable—eclipsed only by the gems and jewelry. This made protecting the collection from a security and conservation perspective a priority. We understood the competing priorities of the educators, who wanted visitors to be able to clearly see the stamps, and conservators, who had concerns regarding light exposure that might degrade their color and imagery.
Throughout this project, we met with jurisdictional and historical preservation authorities, due to the architectural constraints inherent to working in historic structures. Having worked with them before, we knew the importance of demonstrating the logic and processes and demonstrating how historically significant architectural features can be reversed if needed.
This project was specifically challenging from an architectural perspective, because of the numerous exterior windows. Preservation standards are strict for Smithsonian collections, limiting the degrading exposure to natural light; when combined with the major historic architectural constraints, our options were limited. Our turn: We helped marry the exhibit’s stamp theme with the architecture and preservation requirements by coordinating the design of backlit, filtered glass, such that historic façade would be unchanged during the day, visitors would have enough light to view the collection, preservation standards would be achieved allowing for more artifacts to be displayed, and the inclusion of a signature architectural feature highlighting the location of the museum.
Despite skepticism from Smithsonian leadership, some of whom said it would take us 20 years to get this approved, our plan received approval in 6 months. Patricia Burke, the Exhibitions Manager, wrote that: “Glen’s creative solution… resulted in an amazing display that transformed the entire façade of the historic Daniel Burnham designed Old Washington Post Office building. To reduce light that flooded the entire south facing main gallery, Glen proposed installing a layer of film sandwiched in glass and applied to the interior of each window that filled the 180’ wall of windows. Glen recommended building a prototype of the window as it would appear allowing us to measure the light reduction in the galleries as well as the visual impact of the windows on the building, clearly demonstrating the minimal impact on this impotrant historic structure.”
Both the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), Commission of Fine Arts, and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)—which some of the highest standards in the country when it comes to historical preservation—were very happy not only with the end result but also with the process..
Building Teams and Building Dreams
As project managers, we start by listening to and understanding the dreams of the organization. We then build a team dedicated to those dreams and work on solutions that align with everyone’s goals.
SIRIS excels at developing a collaborative team environment where all parties can contribute, and the best solutions can be embraced. In cases where they’re difficult to arrive at, we take pains with all project stakeholders to develop elegant solutions everyone can be proud of. We think about visitors’ experience. And we think about the staff’s experience. We aim to take the dreams of our clients and build a team to make them a reality. This is what sets us apart.