13 August 2010

The Excitement of the Boring

CC image by Cliff1066
AMONG THE MAJOR MUSEUMS, none has less inherent interest than the Smithsonian's Postal Museum. It is a museum about ... the Postal Service.

A friend's Facebook update reminded me about its existence. I visited once, last year, and it is fair to say that I was just shy of enthralled. First, of course, I wanted to see what they made of the topic. For those of us who have been in the museum business, no matter how slightly, there is always some professional interest in seeing how a well-funded museum spends its funds. (I once spent ten minutes at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum examining how the curators had lit their galleries. For a few minutes, at least, that was more illuminating than the paintings themselves.)

In this case, what I really wanted to know was how you could bring to life the story of something that is inherently undramatic. The answer, it turns out, was lots of props--and a few good computer simulations. As a way of conveying history, this has the advantage of being tactile with the disadvantage of being a little misleading. Okay, so the Postal Service used to sort mail on trains, and so you have a caboose. But what does this tell us about how Rural Free Delivery reshaped rural life? And what do we learn about how the Postal Department was a major source of political patronage, helping to develop the American party system on a national basis?

This leads neatly to the second reason I wanted to visit, and that is that I genuinely find the history of the Postal Service interesting. And this isn't the only boring institution I care about--far from it. Of course, I'm using "boring" to refer to how most people, most of the time, see such institutions. And me, too. I'm no anorak or trainspotter. I'm not interested in learning the details of rate cards or the breed of pony used in the Pony Express.

WHAT INTERESTS ME INSTEAD is how transformations in such institutions shape everyday life. The existence of international postal reply coupons was the cause of the Ponzi scheme; the existence of the Sears Catalog made the Midwest habitable. And at the core of all such institutions is politics. True, economic and technical considerations matter, but their resolution is often guided by considerations of sheer power.

The Postal Service, like all other boring institutions, is in its way a product of the fundamental arrangements of power in society. And that makes it something worth paying attention to, at least a little bit, in a way that pop culture and high culture--which are more intrinsically more interesting--can't compete with.

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