British Museum blog

Collecting postcards from the Middle East

Postcard with a view of a camel train, AdenSt John Simpson, curator, British Museum

Just send us a postcard! This short catchphrase is poised to enter history across the world; today, mobile phones, text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the media used to help connect people and share images and experiences.

The postcard is not quite dead but it is certainly endangered and it’s for that reason that we have decided to formally add them to the list of objects that we collect, register, acknowledge donor details, scan and upload onto the British Museum collection online.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden.

Postcard with a view of a camel train, Aden. This vignette of a caravan connecting Aden with its Yemeni hinterland illustrates how valuable postcards are as illustrations of everyday events as well as places. This card dates from the period when Aden was a British colony.

Moreover, postcards are very evocative objects. The images are loaded with significance and capture moments in time, and this applies equally to cards showing places, landscapes and people. Indeed, the more postcards one has of a particular place, the more powerful they become in charting its history and exploring the practical issues of how the view was arrived at and what subliminal messages may have been intended by the choice of view or subject-matter.

Postcards enter into two quite different patterns of circulation. One is from sender to recipient, and the message is often either banal or stereotyped (“wish you were here … the weather’s great”), or deeply personalised, but in both cases the postcard is often treasured by the recipient.

Summer holiday in Turkey postcard

Summer holiday in Turkey. Postcard messages are often banal and stereotyped and holiday cards are a particularly good example of this. This particular card refers to “It’s very hot but I like that” but hints at the richness of Turkey’s culture by stating that “This is our third visit to Turkey and we are still completely fascinated”. Used cards like this are sometimes more poignant than unused ones as they capture personal messages as well as styles of handwriting and snapshots of postal history.

In the second case, the postcard is collected as a tangible memento of a visit and is never intended to be sent. Whereas the first category eventually enter into secondary circulation as people move house, relationships end or they pass away – often for the stamps to be soaked off – the second, almost mint, category of cards become collectibles. Used cards are postmarked and therefore offer absolute dates on a timeline but unused cards can, with patience, be dated through their internal content and series number. They are therefore just like many other objects we have in the museum, and subject to classification, typology and anthropological analysis.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo.

Postcard showing the Bayader mosque, Aleppo. This postcard is a rather attractive early twentieth century visual record of the old minaret of the Bayader mosque in Aleppo. It was later replaced by another which was demolished during heavy fighting on 17 April 2012.

However, it is fundamentally the top-level information they provide on the changing Middle East that led us to start collecting them. Places, people and cultural heritage are fragile commodities and easily affected by periods of conflict, social change and economic development. It is therefore crucial we start archiving these memories before it really is too late.

Explore the British Museum postcard collection in the collection online

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