Pony Express: Romance versus Reality
Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum; Washington, DC.
April 3, 2010–Permanent (refurbished).
Since the inception of the Pony Express over 150 years ago, tales of this organization have been modified and aggrandized based on misinformed historical fiction, movies, and even commercial goods. Pony Express: Romance versus Reality is a new mainstay exhibit within Binding the Nation, the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. Opened in April 2010, Pony Express seeks to contrast pop culture depictions of the Pony Express mail delivery system with accurate historical facts.
Pony Express is one part of a larger exhibition on how the United States Postal Service was able to reach Americans in an expanding nation. During the 19th century, the Pony Express was intended to be a fast and efficient system of communication throughout the Western United States before modern methods, such as the telegraph, were put in place. It is appropriate that the Pony Express is the last exhibit in the chronological history portion of the permanent collection.
The introductory panel to the Pony Express exhibit space establishes the traditional misnomers about the Pony Express delivery system and underscores the romanticized notions that arose in 19th-century stories and novels. The false narrative continued to spread through 20th-century pop culture such as Wild West shows, movies, and toys. The panel goes on to debunk this misinformation. The Pony Express was founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, and lasted only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861. It was one of several private companies during the mid-19th century that carried mail through the Plains and Western Frontier of the United States.
The next panel describes the central route traveled by Pony Express riders. Riding on horseback through a series of checkpoints and drop stations, these mail carriers traveled across plains and mountain terrain from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The panel works in conjunction with a large, illustrated map, located on the same wall. This map traces the exact route followed by the mounted riders of the Pony Express, incorporating the trail with illustrations that note the challenges faced by riders. Below the map on the same panel are answers to basic questions about the Pony Express; for example, “How long was the entire route?” (1,966 miles) or “What was the average speed of a rider?” (10 miles per hour). The map and its illustrations are effective pieces of visual culture that reinforce reality over romanticism early in the exhibit.
After visitors receive an overview of the Pony Express’ history and basic facts, they are met with a large glass case perpendicular to the introductory wall; this case presents the main material content for the “Romance versus Reality” portion of the exhibit. As the title would suggest, the case is divided into two sections: “Romance” and “Reality.” A Mark Twain quote about the Pony Express divides the two sections and creates a link between the fact and fiction of the company.
The “Romance” section features large movie posters for movies such as 1933’s Via Pony Express, advertisements for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, dime novels, miscellaneous collectables, and even a Hot Wheels monster truck, all of which relate to the idealized and commercialized version of the Pony Express. This section reminds visitors of many places where Pony Express myths have permeated American culture.
The “Reality” section has two goals: first, to disabuse visitors of any incorrect, preconceived notions about the Pony Express, and second, to teach the true historical facts. Like in the “Romance” section, several different types of artifacts are used for this section, ranging from advertisements, to stamps, to photographs of the company’s founders. One particularly successful artifact is a special saddlebag, known as a mochila. Discussion of the mochila breaks down the assumption that, like in movies and pop culture, Pony Express riders carried their mail in bags hung from the sides of their saddles. The exhibit describes the Pony Express’ actual use of mochilas through historic drawings, an illustrated diagram, and an actual mochila on display in the case. The artifact is effective because it relates to both the romance and the reality of the Pony Express.
The mochila is one of the few instances in the exhibit where artifacts directly correspond to both the “Romance” and the “Reality” components. Overall, few artifacts are in conversation with both sections. Instead, “Romance” generally delineates cultural stereotypes, while “Reality” usually makes broad statements of historical fact. In addition to the cases, small, interactive panels are situated on a low-sitting shelf, easily accessible for children. This shelf features panels that ask questions and require the visitors to lift, pull, move, or touch the panels in some way in order to find out the answers. These interactive elements help to elevate the level of engagement with the exhibit, particularly for younger visitors.
Despite its many successes, the exhibit has two design flaws that hinder the visitor experience: first, the presence of an exhibit accessory that is either unfinished or left over from a previous exhibit, but which lacks the details needed to make it relevant to the Pony Express. Second, the concluding panel about the Pony Express’ decline and eventual closing is difficult to find. The intent behind these items is unclear, but the result mars the flow of the exhibit.
Overall, however, the choice of artifacts is extremely effective: older visitors will remember the familiar movie titles or collectables, while younger generations can relate to the comic books, toys, and interactive panels. The exhibit is fun, informative, and successfully establishes the Pony Express’ difficult reality over its romantic interpretation.
Kelly J. Gannon