Binding the Nation, Mail by Rail

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Hilary-morgan Watt

Published on March 02, 2011 , Modified on March 03, 2011

  • Museum: The National Postal Museum

  • Visit Date: February, 2011

  • Description:

    Using Technology at The National Postal Museum

    Despite my love of hand-written correspondence and a small stamp collection from my childhood, I still had some reservations about visiting the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. I wondered how the Postal Museum engages an audience with the challenge of a collection that doesn’t include dinosaurs or ruby slippers. Well I was blown away: the museum gives you such a sense of living history and entertains you with games and videos. There are many technology encounters within the museum: living-history audio tracks, music, multiple videos, and touch-screen computers in the Ford Education center. For the purpose of this review I will discuss two aspects of audience-interactive technology used: the cell phone tour and touch-screen table.

    Touch-Screen
    I followed the prescribed route on the visitor map, beginning with a timeline of postal history in Binding the Nation. Within the timeline, between Expanding Nation and Expanding West, I came upon the Post-Haste interactive touch-screen table. The table has a screen that is 2×3 feet and features a game design similar to the classic “Oregon Trail” in which you progress through the game by making decisions about the best route and supplies to use. You follow a route and at each destination you are presented with about three choices. I started to play the game, and was reticent because I didn’t know what to do at first. A young boy came over eager to get his hands on the table-but respectful enough to wait his turn-so I let him play. I watched while chatting with his grandmother (found out he was 9 years old), he had no hesitation, dove right in playing two rounds before I really knew what was going on.
    Then I played again, the game is tactile and touch-screen appropriate: the choices are represented on cards that are “thrown” across the table, so you touch them and turn them with your fingers, so that you can read and sort and decided which one to use. You choose a route or crew by picking a card, and dragging it over to the “matching” point. As you play, the choices you make can hit certain drawbacks, for example a gold rush entices your crew away so you lose two days on the journey and that costs a specific amount. Or while on the train, a bridge collapses and so it’s a twelve-hour delay. Your final score relates to the costs involved and how quickly you completed your route.
    Now this game engages the user as an educational tool because it takes a simple topic from the history of the postal service, and gives examples of how it worked through a game. The graphics are good quality so it doesn’t feel like an “old” game; it’s colorful and visually pleasing. The screen is large enough that others can watch someone play the game. I lingered in this gallery, and as more people came through children flocked to the touch-screen. A younger boy, about six, struggled with the game initially but he persisted and figured out the tasks. I believe the game is appropriate for ages 6 and up.

    Cellphone Tour
    When visiting a museum I generally avoid all types of tours because I prefer my own exploration, but I was impressed with the Postal Museum’s cell phone guided tour. Advertised by a few sandwich signs throughout the museum as well as small signs on the wall, this guided tour provides some highlights from exhibits such as in the International and U.S. stamp gallery, but also goes more in depth with details in others.
    I listened to the tour in the Mail By Rail train-car exhibit. Numbered signs were associated with pictures as well as workstations within the train-car. I was drawn in to the experience by the descriptive language, content, and thought-provoking questions. The tour script set the stage for the time period and place in history; I listened to statements about what happened, what people felt, and what it would be like to be working those jobs. It’s a simple formula, but those things are exactly what I want to hear from a museum. The information was straightforward and I walked away feeling satisfied with a little more knowledge about the railway’s involvement with the postal service. I believe this tour is appropriate for ages 10 and up, simple enough for children but still interesting enough for adults.
    The technical aspects: you call the listed number on the sign, you are greeted and given instructions for how to use the tour, and then there is a message about how any costs relate to your individual cell phone plan. With the average U.S. visitor the tour will simply use some minutes from your plan without any additional costs; International visitors would most likely suffer additional charges and so it is unlikely that they would make use of this tour. A big draw for me was that you could skip around or interrupt a message from a listening station and that you would not have to start over with the introduction message; the transitions between messages were quick and smooth.

    Conclusion
    I felt that both interactive experiences contributed positively to my museum visit because they both contained interesting and relevant information. Overall I was impressed that all technology aspects of the museum were working properly, I experienced nothing that was run-down or broken-which could have been a distraction for some visitors.

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