A little history: how a local artist curates one of the tiniest museums in existence

  • Written by Kirsten Abel, Features Writer

Inside the lobby of the Duvall Post Office in a three-foot by three-foot frame is what’s known as the Little Postal Museum, started by Thomas Matthiesen in 1990.
“It’s the smallest museum in the state of Washington that I know of,” said Matthiesen, the museum’s sole curator.

Matthiesen is a local visual artist who spent the 1960s working as a magazine photographer in New York. He moved to the Duvall area in 1972. Through his work as an artist and as a philatelist (a stamp collector), he has made connections to a worldwide group of collectors who lend him material for use in the museum.

tomTom Matthiesen prepares to switch out displays at Duvall’s Little Postal Museum. Replacing the RFD (Rural Free Delivery) historical display will be “The Penny Postal Card 1873-1952.” (Photo by Lisa Allen)“I like to really reinforce the idea that it’s not my stuff, that it’s material that’s been loaned to us by many, many wonderful people,” he said.

Over the past 27 years, the Little Postal Museum has featured more than 90 different exhibits. 

Often the items inside the frame are Smithsonian quality, Matthiesen said. Other times, the exhibits are made up of more common material.

Those items have included 500-year-old letters from Venice, letters from Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, mail from the Tibetan postal system, prisoner of war letters, “disinfected” mail from the 1700s, censored mail and stamps depicting a variety of subjects from horses to bees.

“Sometimes the whole exhibit is one letter because there’s so much history involved,” Matthiesen said. “It really is a very unusual site.”

As Matthiesen described it, there is a difference between stamps and what is called “postal history.” Postal history includes envelopes that have gone through the mail at a certain point and that contain stamps and markings to indicate when and to where the envelopes have traveled.

“That’s where the thrill of philately is,” he said.

The newest museum exhibit, which Matthiesen installed this week, tells the history of the one-cent postcard. Postcards cost just a penny from 1873 until 1952, for a total of 79 years. 

“It was an incredible thing because a lot of people in that era didn’t have telephones or didn’t have money for a telegram,” Matthiesen said.

People could spend a penny and communicate with someone across town in the same day.

Matthiesen’s father, also a philatelist, encouraged his son to adopt the hobby at the age of seven. “It is a remarkable hobby that can fit into, go along with any other interests you may have,” Matthiesen said. “It can also provide a broad understanding of geography, history and human behavior. The Little Postal Museum tries to show that.”

The tiny Duvall museum is entirely an act of love; Matthiesen does not get paid for his labor. It is an effort to teach and an effort to preserve communication, something that in today’s digital age is often temporary and fleeting, to be read and then deleted.

One of Matthiesen’s favorite memories from the Little Postal Museum occurred on one of his errands to the Duvall Post Office. The exhibit at that time included a letter from 1620 that told a dramatic story. When Matthiesen entered the post office, he noticed a woman reading the letter.

“She was staring at this story and there were some tears running down her face,” he said. “To me that was just exactly why I love to do this. To show the history, to show the beauty, to show the poignancy of some of these things.”
Visit the Little Postal Museum at the Duvall Post Office during business hours, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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