Elizabeth Schorr, collections manager at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, has been with the museum for six years. She has previously worked at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland, and the El Paso Museum of Art in El Paso, Texas. She received her MA in museum studies from George Washington University and her BA in American Studies and Afro-American Studies from Purdue University. In the following interview, we talk about her work on the Postal Museum's Delivering Hope exhibition.
ephemera: Tell me about the creation of the FDR "Delivering Hope" exhibit. How did it come into being?
Schorr: Actually, the creation of the FDR exhibition was a bit unusual. The museum had originally been working on a completely different philatelic show for that space from a lender, similar to the New York Public Library loan of the Benjamin K. Miller collection on exhibition prior to the FDR show.
Unfortunately, the arrangements fell through at a very late stage and the museum was forced to develop an exhibition from scratch in a very short period of time. Usually, our curators and exhibition teams are working on shows for at least two to three years in advance; in this case, we had to pull something together in less than a year. Basically, the curators decided they wanted to do a show that featured objects from the museum's collection, that told an interesting story, and that would make philately accessible to the non-collecting audience.
The curators could probably speak more directly about how they developed this final idea, but once it was discussed with the exhibition team everyone was supportive. The timeliness of the subject matter in relation to our current economic crisis was truly a coincidence.
ephemera: That's an amazing turn of events. What is your role in the project?
Schorr: As the museum's collections manager, my primary role in the exhibition process is to "manage" the objects; but, as part of the team, I lend my opinion to discussions about content, script, design, educational programming, and other elements of the final product. Managing the objects typically involves a variety of tasks to gather, document, and prepare the artifacts for eventual display. My staff and I will make arrangements for any loans to the exhibition, ensure that objects are cataloged into our collections database system, and scan or photograph objects for the database. I work closely with our preservation department to coordinate these functions with their needs to assess and treat any objects in need of conservation and to prepare the objects for installation of the exhibition.
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter in putting this exhibit together? How do you overcome these challenges?
Schorr: By far the biggest challenge was organizing the exhibition in such a short period of time. But beyond that we did have other issues to surmount. As you can imagine, coming from the ephemera world, paper artifacts have a host of conservation and preservation concerns. Many of the objects selected for exhibition needed treatment by our paper conservator which can be time consuming; our shortened timeline made this challenging. By the way, you can see some video of her treatment work on one of the FDR objects here. In addition, we had concerns about how to limit the amount of light exposure for some of the more fragile works on paper. We continually deal with this issue in the museum because the majority of our collection is paper based. Our preservation office proposed reducing the intensity of the light for all of the paper based objects and to rotate some of the most vulnerable pieces. As a result, the three original stamp design sketches by FDR currently on exhibition will be rotated with three different ones half way through the exhibition time period.
ephemera: What are your favorite items the exhibit? Why?
Schorr: One of my favorite objects in the exhibition is the Washington experimental plate proof. I love the story behind its creation, about the contest to design the stamp, and how the proof gives you the opportunity to see the final five designs together at once. I like to imagine FDR reviewing the sheet and would love to have heard his comments on why and how he chose Elaine Rawlinson's design. Plus, for the viewer, the proof is a great visual example of the modernist design elements that FDR pursued as opposed to the other finalists' styles which are quite different.
Another favorite of mine are the series of twelve essays reflecting rejected designs for the 1937 issue of the Naval Academy stamp. Each one is a miniature piece of art and they show the variety of ideas that were suggested by the designers.
ephemera: Those are wonderful objects. What resources do you recommend to anyone interested in FDR stamps and related ephemera?
Schorr: I would definitely recommend that interested readers refer to the list of resources that our curators have posted on the exhibition's web page.
ephemera: Thank you, Elizabeth.
-The Washington experimental image is a crop of the original (showing only ¼ of the original proof sheet).