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8 July 2017

The Postal Museum

Tag(s): History, Languages & Culture, Philanthropy
Last week I had the pleasure to attend a private reception to celebrate the opening of the Postal Museum to the public later this month. In January 2014 I joined a private visit to the Museum where we learned of its plans to reopen in a major way and also open the Mail Rail as a visitor attraction. (See my blog Mail Rail 18th January 2014 )

Following that visit I offered the outreach services of the Worshipful Company of Marketors to assist with the marketing of this project.  A group of us have helped with reviewing their strategic thinking and working closely with their marketing department to constructively challenge their plans. After all the project was highly ambitious. They needed to raise £26m. They wanted to turn a relatively small museum mainly geared towards research students into a visitor attraction for hundreds of thousands of visitors. And they wanted to reopen the Mail Rail, designed as a driverless service to carry the mail under London, as a ride for the paying public.

We had a chance to ride on the train in a loop underground for 20 minutes or so. They had developed a lively and witty commentary and then when we reached a station we stopped and watched some superbly crafted videos projected onto the station walls. These told some of the amazing stories of the Mail Rail and its use particularly in the Second World War.

At a time when increasingly people no longer use the Post except to receive junk mail and packages from Amazon it is worth reflecting on the central role it has played in our national life for five centuries. As in so many things it was Britain that led the way.  The mail was probably introduced as a way for the Crown to control as it could see who was writing to whom but by the Victorian era it had become a way to connect the nation. The beautifully simple and democratic idea of a universal price for a stamp so that you paid the same to send a letter whether it was delivered in the same town or to the furthest part of the country also helped to unite the nation. Anti-social media has the opposite effect as it divides the country and indeed the world into those who use it and those who don’t.

Britain also led the way in negotiating exchange deals with other countries so that we could eventually send a letter or parcel anywhere in the world and equally receive them from anywhere. The novelist Anthony Trollope played a key role in this. He wrote his novels on his extensive travels to negotiate such deals.

It was Henry VIII who tasked Sir Brian Tuke with establishing a national postal network to serve his Court and Charles I who opened it to the public. It became the General Post Office under Oliver Cromwell but it was not until the early 1900s that the first steps towards organising and safeguarding its records were taken.

Sir Francis Freeling, a master spy during the Napoleonic Wars and Secretary of the Post Office from 1797 until his death in 1836, took the lead in establishing the foundations of the Archive as we know it today. Under his leadership a system was introduced for recording minutes and reports for the first time.

A Government department, in 1838 the General Post Office put record-keeping front and centre following the passing of the first Public Records Act. By the 1890s there was a Record Room in the General Post Office (GPO) headquarters in St Martin’s Le Grand, Central London, where the archive of the institution could be studied.

The museum itself has its origins in the early 20th century. Building on very humble beginnings in the basements of the GPO HQ, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the National Postal Museum at King Edward building near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London in 1969. Built partly to house an award winning collection of British Victorian stamps the museum provided public access to its collections like never before.

Some thirty years later in 1998, the museum was forced to close its doors for the last time following the sale of the museum building. Its staff and smaller objects were moved out to the less glamorous surroundings of Freeling House at Mount Pleasant with larger objects put into storage away from Central London. Under many guises, including the now infamous Consignia brand, the organisation spent six years as part of Royal Mail, adjusting to its new existence.

In 2004 the collections were transferred by Royal Mail to a newly formed independent charity, the Postal Heritage Trust which was tasked with looking after them and growing them for the enjoyment of all. The public identity of the charity was the British Postal Museum & Archive or ‘BPMA’.

Ever since its primary focus has been on building a new first class home that it deserves. That has now been achieved. The new Postal Museum and Mail Rail have been more than seven years in the planning. The ambition is to become the world’s leading museum of postal and communications history. They want to be an international destination for those interested in heritage and culture and in how communication has shaped the very essence of who we are, how we view one another and the world around us.

At a time when more and more of us are ‘communicating’ through screens in our pocket, there has never been a more important moment to tell the stories of the many men and women whose ideas, innovation, creativity and , at times, great sacrifice brought us to this  point in our shared history. A time when sending messages to friends, colleagues and loved ones, or those we have never even met, who live in places we may never otherwise reach, can all be accomplished in an instant. It is one of the most fascinating and compelling of all human stories.

In the new museum there are:

·         2 major galleries
·         1 temporary exhibition space
·         1 in-house conservation studio
·         128 m² of learning space
·         A world class Digitisation Studio
·         A Discovery Room for exploring the Archive
·         Sorted! A dedicated play area for children 0-8
·         1km of underground tunnels
·         2 Mail Rail trains to ride
·         2 event spaces

The archive contains hundreds of thousands of records on over 2.5 miles of shelving. Notable records include the Post Office Investigation Department case files on the Great Train Robbery, telegrams from the Titanic (it was a Royal Mail Ship licensed to carry mail), a first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce seized as a banned book, sheets of Penny Blacks, a stamp that would have been issued if Scotland had won the 1978 FIFA World Cup, and many more. Parts of the archive, including its unrivalled collection of stamps, have UNESCO status.

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