Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004 / 27 Kislev 5765

Smithsonian's Hand-Held Tour Guide an iPAQ

By Mark Kellner | The old world of postage stamps and the new one of handheld computers merge, quite nicely, in a former downtown post office.

At the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., visitors can borrow a Hewlett Packard iPAQ handheld computer to take a tour of a rather special exhibit of postage stamps on loan from the collection of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, herself the most-pictured woman on postage. "The Queen's Own: Stamps that changed the world" is an exhibit containing some of the world's rarest stamps and runs through Jan. 11.

Because Britain was the first nation to issue postage stamps, in 1840, its monarchs have been intimately involved in the process. Queen Victoria was depicted on the first stamps, and the monarch's portrait or cameo have served to identify postage as coming from the United Kingdom since then - every other nation has had to print its name on their adhesives.

The items on display in the NPM - a part of the Smithsonian Institution - are but a fraction of the collection begun in the late 1800s by the Duke of York, who later went on to become King George V, the present queen's grandfather. His son, King George VI, kept up the stamp collection during his 16-year reign, as Queen Elizabeth II does today, albeit with the help of a curator.

While the items on display are well-annotated, the handheld computers provide written and audio commentary on 12 items of particular note, such as the early trial designs, or "essays" for the first stamps, examples of different test printings to guard against reuse of postage, and rare stamps such as the Mauritius "Post Office" error stamps - "Post Paid" was supposed to have been inscribed - of which the Royal Collection has the finest known example of the two-penny value.

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The narration on the handheld computers is keyed to a central menu screen, to pace you in your examination. The special items are labeled on the display case; touch a number and you get not only a narration, but a link to "bonus material" that adds to one's understanding of the item, or of related trends in stamps of other countries.

People at the museum tell me that the handhelds have held up quite well - none of the styluses used to activate the touch screens have been lost; only one unit's LCD display screen was broken. The devices are kept charged when not on loan, and headphones plug into a jack on the bottom of the device.

The handheld devices, according to a museum announcement, "were designed to meet the needs of multiple audiences and offer a wide variety of options for ... visitors," including "audio features and on-screen, large-format text augment the experiences of visually or hearing impaired visitors."

It's a smart, smart idea that apparently is catching on: I'm told that units will be placed in other Smithsonian museums soon (another earlier trial was in the National Portrait Gallery), allowing visitors at other exhibits the chance to learn even more about a given display.

Audio, self-paced tours of museum exhibits have been around for decades. By moving to handheld computers, however, the chance exists to bring multimedia into play: more narrative, other sounds, short video clips and illustrations. With emerging wireless technology, perhaps, it could be possible to eliminate the need for a stylus and touch screen: just pause in front of a given display and the proper narration is played.

The Ford Motor Company Fund, charitable arm of the auto and truck maker, deserves credit for funding this initiative, as does the National Postal Museum for using it on an exhibit of such renowned items. Readers have only about a month left to see it, however, and the museum is open every day except Dec. 25. You can also get a sense of the display from the NPM's Web site,

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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