In The Spotlight

GBCC Webmaster Larry Rosenblum interviews
Douglas Muir, Curator, Philately, at Heritage, Royal Mail


Douglas Muir (center) with Ken Chapman, author (left) and David Gentleman, designer (right) on the occasion of the release of Gentleman’s autobiography, Artwork


Published in the April, 2003 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Rosenblum: Mr. Muir, where were you born and raised, and where did you go to school?

Muir: I was born in a small village in Scotland, Balfron, not far from Loch Lomond — very beautiful countryside, full of rounded hills and lochs, near the Highland Line. After going to the excellent village school, I studied geography and archaeology at the University of Glasgow. This stood me in good stead for later work. My archaeology professor always said, “Excavate in museums, not in the field!” and I can now vouch for the importance of that advice.

Rosenblum: Among other accomplishments, you are an author and an editor. How did you develop those skills?

Muir: Books surrounded me when I was young and still do. I suppose it was a love of English and writing and the desire to communicate that disciplined me. Also the study of Latin, which I hated then, but the clear logic of it has remained, together with a constant diet of well-written newspapers.

Rosenblum: What was your early career?

Muir: My first job was as a language teacher in Pforzheim in the Black Forest. I went for six months and stayed for three years.

Rosenblum: How did you get interested in philately? Who were your mentors or role models?

Muir: Stamps always interested me. When I was a boy they were a window to the world, more so then than now. In a neighbouring village to mine lived Sir John Wilson, then Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection, and although I never met him (I knew his brother, Sir George, also a stamp collector), he was highly regarded in the local area. So stamps were not thought of simply as a small boy’s passion.

Rosenblum: When did you first enter philately as a profession?

Muir: I first became involved in stamp journalism when I became Assistant Editor to Ken Chapman on the weekly Stamp Collecting in 1975. He was my true mentor, if that is the right word, in philately. I worked under Ken for two years and he taught me a lot — about stamps, journalism and the philatelic world. He was in many ways the doyen of philatelic journalists.

Rosenblum: What were your early involvements in organized philately?

Muir: As far as organized philately is concerned, while working for Ken, I set up the Postal Mechanisation Study Circle and am proud to have been very much involved with that for over 25 years now.

Rosenblum: What was your first involvement with Royal Mail?

Muir: When the firm publishing Stamp Collecting and the Philatelic Magazine unfortunately folded in 1984 (I was by then Editor of both), I worked as a consultant at the National Postal Museum in London, firstly on some of the collections and then as Editor of the Royal Mail magazine for collectors, the British Philatelic Bulletin. When the opportunity arose in 1988, I joined Royal Mail officially as Curator, Philately at the Museum with John Holman taking over the job of Editor under me.

Rosenblum: I believe you have continued in essentially the same role until today, through the various organizational changes that have occurred. Is that correct? What is your official title today and what are your current duties?

Muir: That is quite correct. My title is still Curator, Philately though no longer of the National Postal Museum which closed to the public in 1998, but rather of Heritage, Royal Mail. My duties remain the same: i.e., to take care of the philatelic collections of Royal Mail, and also to develop them and make them available in various ways to the public, both lay and collecting or student.

Rosenblum: How do you divide your time among your current duties, and which are considered the most important?

Muir: The collections have to be cared for, accurately described and catalogued, and then used (in exhibitions or publications of various kinds). I would not like to say that one aspect was more important than the others. Without accurate description and cataloguing, you cannot retrieve the items or the information or easily exhibit the material so that people know about the collections and what we have and do. Priorities are cataloguing and proper care, but then I am asked to provide some material for an exhibition, and deadlines mean that the immediate display must take over.

Rosenblum: Briefly describe your staff and their roles, and also any volunteers who assist you on a regular basis. To whom do you report?

Muir: Although there is a post of Assistant Curator, Philately, it is not currently filled. At Heritage there are a number of people who work on the collections as a whole, and for particular projects I work with them. Obviously, I work closely with our Conservator — Krystyna Koscia — and others help to deal with incoming material and exhibitions. I am very lucky to have three volunteers who come in one day a week to help with describing the collections and remounting them on archival album pages. They are Mike Bament and Tom Norgate, both working on postal history, and Don Staddon, working on our Machin material. I report to the Collections Manager, Christine Jones, and through the Head of Heritage (Martin Rush) to the Secretary of the Post Office.

Rosenblum: Please describe the current activities and goals of Heritage, Royal Mail. What accomplishments do you foresee for the next couple of years?

Muir: Since the Museum closed to the public and we merged organisationally with what was Post Office Archives to become Heritage, we have been engaged in cataloguing and displaying the collections at exhibitions, and of course striving for new public gallery space. Now, it has been agreed that we shall become an independent charitable trust, open to outside funding. A large part of our work over the next few years will be to manage that, to gain better storage facilities and modern display galleries. Quite when that will be achieved is another matter, but it will not be for another two or three years at least. A modern gallery in central London is the aim, with fully up to date facilities and display techniques and activities, but that cannot be created overnight and of course needs a lot of money.

Rosenblum: Shortly before the National Postal Museum closed, four books were published in what apparently was intended to be a series titled “Special Stamp History.” You are credited as series editor. Will we see any more books in this series?

Muir: For several years at the National Postal Museum we employed a number of people to research each British stamp issue. Stamp histories were then written for all of them up to 1975 and, as you say, four were published. It is unlikely that we shall publish more in book form, but all the texts are available on request and we are considering making them accessible on our web site.

Rosenblum: Let’s talk about your work and accomplishments. You wrote a book, Postal Reform and the Penny Black: A New Appreciation. How did that come about and what were you trying to achieve?

1990 saw the 150th anniversary of the Penny Black and obviously, with the greatest collection of Penny Black material in the world, the National Postal Museum wanted to celebrate it properly. I spent a year researching and creating a majomuir_book_coverr exhibition in the Museum, and with Sir John Marriott (Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection) another display on the history of the postal service and the reforms leading up to the Penny Black for the Court of Honour at the 1990 international [exhibition] in London.

Tony Rigo de Righi, a previous Curator of the Museum, had written a relatively slim volume on the Penny Black some time before, but I felt that there was quite a lot of information at the Public Record Office which had not been properly explored. So, I set out to do some research and it ended up in the published book. I wanted to record the story accurately and clear away a lot of unsubstantiated claims that had been repeated over and over again; to go back to the sources. What I found was that a good deal of what had been published was wrong and that a lot of unknown information was sitting in files and correspondence books just waiting to be discovered. This was particularly true of all the entries to the 1839 Treasury Competition, which I listed for the first time from the Treasury letter books.

Rosenblum: Have you written any other books? Are there more books in your future?

Muir: I have collaborated with others on books but no sole authorship. Given the time I should very much like to do more research and publish that in book format.

Rosenblum: You write articles for various philatelic publications. How do you decide what to write and for whom?

Muir: I do not write nearly as much as I would like — no time. Obviously, Royal Mail has first demand on that, and if John Holman at the British Philatelic Bulletin asks me for something then I endeavour to put that first. Otherwise, I generally write about some immediate Heritage activity in the philatelic field, such as a forthcoming exhibition. Then I would publicise that in any publication that is appropriate. When it comes to my own private research (at the moment Swiss and other return to sender labels), then I aim to publish that in journals such as The London Philatelist (of the Royal Philatelic Society, London) if the editor finds it suitable.

Rosenblum: You create displays for exhibitions, such as “Eyes Right!” for Stamp Show 2000. How do you go about doing this and what are your goals when setting these up?

Muir: The organisers of Stamp Show 2000 wanted a number of displays from Royal Mail. Philatelically, someone decided that a display of definitives would be appropriate, and it was my job to create and make it interesting. My goals in such a situation are simple: to tell the story clearly, accurately and to engage the viewer’s interest and inform in an entertaining manner. Doing that is not entirely simple. I have to research the subject thoroughly and clarify my thoughts and make the story concise and clear. Then it is a matter of choosing the best possible items to illustrate what I want to say. Happily, in the case of British stamps, I have access to a vast archive of remarkable material, a lot of which is not well known.

penny_black_qi_vlgExhibitions take time, a lot of time, much more than many realise. Most of it involves thinking and research. After that, writing is relatively easy, but everything must still be designed into an agreeable and attractive whole.

I was unfortunately not able to see the recent display about the efforts in the 1980s to replace the Machin portrait, though I read some of the press reports. To my knowledge, even the existence of this project was unknown to the public prior to this display. Did you have any particular reason for unveiling this information now?

m_04d_sepia_vlgMuir: It is certainly true that the philatelic world did not know about the 1980s design work on definitives. The simple answer to your question as to why it was unveiled now is that the organisers of Stampex asked me for a display that would attract visitors and create some publicity. I immediately thought of this project and asked if there were any objections to publicising it now that it was part of history. As there were none, I went ahead and became fascinated by the efforts to find a better alternative to the Machin bust (left). I happen to think the Machin design a classic, the best since the Penny Black (above right), and so I was amused to see that the Queen said that “a work of real quality” would be required to improve on it. Certainly, designers explored a number of alternatives and while they were all very interesting, in my view they did not match the Machin or even approach it in terms of lasting quality. All aspects of definitive design were explored, but particularly the alternatives of classic (eternal) symbol against contemporary (and dating) reality.

This stamp-like label features an engraved portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Czeslaw Slania. It may have been his suggestion for a new design for British definitives. 

Rosenblum: One of my other interests is the work of Czeslaw Slania, and especially when he does work for Royal Mail. Slania engraved some portraits of the Queen during these design efforts in the 1980s. In an article in Stamp Magazine (“The Design Files,” March 2002) you were quoted as saying that you were still looking to discover Slania’s “exact involvement.” Have you found out anything more?

Muir: Files can be a great source of information, but they can also be very frustrating. On this subject there was no information at all. As far as I can discover Slania produced an engraving of the Queen (based on a photograph by Snowdon) without any formal commission. At the time he was working on the mailcoach issue, and it is possible that at some meeting the problems being incurred with the Queen’s Portrait project may have been mentioned. The engraving that he produced was used, but not on stamps. A new design of postal order was created about this time and Harrisons, the printers, made a litho version of the engraved design and used that for the new postal order.

You may be interested to know that Slania also engraved a very beautiful Datapost aeroplane in essay format while working on the mailcoach issue. It was based on an illustration by Stanley Paine and Keith Bassford for an idea of the history of mail transport that ultimately was not adopted.

m_l1-5_engravedRosenblum: Do you think that Slania’s efforts in the 1980s led to the eventual decision to have him engrave portraits for the high values issued in 1999? Slania’s engraving is shown at left.

Muir: Slania was always very highly regarded by Royal Mail and his engravings are superlative. It was the technology of reproduction that was lacking. With improvements in the latter it was an obvious possibility that high values could be reproduced by that technique and Slania was the certain candidate. Another British stamp engraved by Slania is shown below.

Rosenblum: You do research on various topics. How do you decide what to work on? What do you do with the results of your research?

Muir: Generally, I research to provide better descriptions of material in the collections and this gets published in exhibitions or articles about them.

One of five 1984 stamps engraved by Slania commemorating the 200th anniversary of mail coaches. 

Rosenblum: What do you consider your most important research work to date?

Muir: “Important” is perhaps a little difficult. I have certainly always enjoyed my research whether it be on the Penny Black, the history of envelopes or a particular stamp issue such as the pictorial definitives of Palestine (for which I won the Tapling medal). I suppose the most “important” would be that on the history of the Penny Black and postal reform, but I enjoy all such projects.

Rosenblum: Your expertise clearly spans the whole history of British philately, from the pre-stamp era to the Machins. What are your personal favorite areas?

Muir: I would never claim to be an expert “on the whole history of British philately.” I learn something new every day, and there is so much new to learn. In terms of personal favorites, then the era of postal reform is one of obvious importance, and then there is the history of postal mechanisation from 1856 to the present day and the work of Arnold Machin in the creation of his design (about which I am still learning quite a lot, and finding new material).

Rosenblum: Are you a stamp collector yourself? If so what do you collect?

Muir: Yes, I am a stamp collector but my enthusiasm does vary. When I first began work in the stamp field my interest made my work fascinating and very enjoyable. But this rather ruined the hobby — it was then merely an extension of work. When I came to work for Royal Mail then I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest, and so although I have an accumulation of many things that are individually interesting, I would not say that I have a GB collection. However, I have been collecting and studying return to sender labels from Switzerland and elsewhere for some years now and am on the point of publishing the results. On the other hand, I keep discovering more and so publication is constantly being delayed.

Rosenblum: Do you have any other hobbies unrelated to stamps?

Muir: Stamps are the world in microcosm, viewed properly. I have many other interests but not hobbies.

Rosenblum: How do you perceive the health of stamp collecting today? What should be done to cure/overcome any maladies you believe it has? And where do you predict the hobby being, say 20 years from now?

Muir: In 1922 meter franking was introduced in Great Britain, and already then doom merchants were predicting the imminent demise of the hobby of stamp collecting. That did not happen. Nor do I believe it will happen in the foreseeable future. Collectors have many stimuli: but at least one of them, if only subliminally, is the profit motive. If the market is falling, then collectors lose heart; if it rises, then there is greater interest. I believe that the future will expose the difficulty in obtaining some items from the recent past — stocks were simply not put aside by stamp dealers, as in the past. Some GB items are already difficult to find on the open market, some at a distinct premium over face value. That is never a guarantee of future value, but it can be an indication.

When I was young, more years ago than I care to remember, the advice given to me by Merrylees (a well-known Scottish postal historian) was to get everything in my chosen field, whatever that might be. No matter whether I agreed with the stamp issue or not — in fact especially if I, as a collector, did not agree, or it was of particularly high value (buy the most expensive first). Other collectors, I was told, would do the norm — i.e., not buy them, but later they would want that particular item and then pay more. It is not advice I have followed, largely to my chagrin.

This can only be my personal opinion (right or wrong) and should never be taken as “professional advice,” nor reflecting on my employers.

Twenty years from now the hobby will be different. Quite how, I do not know, but I hope it will still be inhabited by enthusiasts rather than pedants.

Rosenblum: To close, if you had one philatelic wish for 2003, what would it be?

Muir: Personally, that I could find some of the scarce Swiss return to sender labels that I am still missing. On a more general level, that collectors would enjoy their stamps and collections more, and that they would not miss the wood for the trees — the overall, important view for the detail.

Rosenblum: Mr. Muir, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions. The position of Curator is a vital one to insure the preservation and presentation of historic material, and I’m sure all of our members appreciate knowing more about you and your important role in British philately.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell readers about The Friends of Postal Heritage. This group was originally called The Association of Friends of the National Postal Museum, and it was created to support and publicize the work of the museum. The Friends produce a semi-annual journal, “Cross Post,” and there is a periodic newsletter as well. Now that Royal Mail has decided to set up an independent, charitable trust to own and manage the museum collection, the Friends will play a key role in guiding the formation of the trust and then helping it create a new postal museum.

Membership in the Friends is open to any interested collector (I have been a member since 1985), and joining now would be a good way to stay informed about the trust and the changes to Heritage. Membership information is available from Avice Harms, the Membership Secretary of the Friends, at 13 Amethyst Avenue, Davis Estate, Chatham, UK ME5 9TX. 

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