Exhibiting Tutorial for United Nations Philatelists, Inc (UNPI)

Second in a series - On Exhibits and Exhibiting: “Educating” the Jury by Anthony F. Dewey

A complaint frequently uttered by disgruntled exhibitors is, “The judges didn’t know what they were looking at!” While the statement is somewhat harsh there is the kernel of truth in it. It is also a poor reason for not exhibiting, especially since the remedy to the “problem” lies with you, the exhibitor. There is a high probability that you will know more about what you are exhibiting than any member of the jury, or even the jury as a collective body. So how, you ask, can they judge my exhibit? Firstly, they may know more than you think and collectively they do know more about philately, in general, than just about any given individual. An experienced judge has viewed and read hundreds of exhibits acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge. A good judge will “do his homework” and research each of the exhibits that s/he will evaluate. Secondly, more than judging the material, the jury is evaluating how well you show what you tell them that you are showing. That is, given the subject and scope that you define on your title page, the jury will evaluate how well you tell that philatelic story. How challenging is the subject? Have you limited the scope to exclude the material that’s most difficult to acquire? Is the presentation “complete” for the given subject and scope? Is the story told in a logical and easy to understand format? Is the condition of the material as good as can be expected for this subject? Is the display aesthetically appealing? You may be the expert on the subject being shown, but the jury is far more experienced and far more expert on exhibiting. To qualify to be a judge, a person must first be a successful exhibitor. How well you tell your philatelic story and how well you convey the importance of the material to the jury is critical. Since the jury may not be as knowledgeable about your subject as you, it is your responsibility to “educate” the jury. You accomplish this task through the title page, the write-up, via the presentation and organization, and the synopsis. The critique is another opportunity to impart knowledge to the jury, as well as learn something, in turn. Let’s address each of these in turn.

The Title Page

The title page is where you define for the jury, as well as the viewing public – and yourself – the subject and scope of the exhibit. This is where you set the boundaries. Make the title specific, accurately describing the exhibit. The two titles “Uses of the UNTEA Overprinted Issues” and “Postal History of UNTEA” imply very different exhibits. In the exhibit described by the first title we would expect to see covers and other postal documents franked with stamps overprinted “UNTEA.” We would rightly expect to see these, as well as any covers and postal documents related to the UN Temporary Executive Authority, whether franked with UNTEA stamps or not, in the exhibit with the second title. Include dates, where it makes sense, to provide specific boundaries to the scope. Explicitly state what kind of exhibit you are presenting. A sentence such as “This traditional exhibit of…” or “This study of the postal history of…” should be included on the title page. While the rules for each of the many kinds of exhibits are well defined, there is great latitude in how an exhibit may be presented. Sometimes it becomes difficult to tell what kind of exhibit is being shown. Is it a Thematic or a Display exhibit? Is it a Postal History exhibit or a Special Study? I’ve seen “Traditional” exhibits made up mainly of covers. At least by telling your audience what kind of exhibit you think you are presenting, you give the jury a fair chance to evaluate the exhibit using the right set of rules. A jury may switch an exhibit from one division to another, but only if the exhibit benefits from the switch.

Define your scope. Here, you expand upon the title to set the boundaries. Tell the jury what will be included in the exhibit, and just as importantly, what will be excluded. For example, in my exhibit of the Swiss official stamps issued for use by the UNEO and the international agencies, I let the jury know that the exhibit will also include those stamps issued for use by the League of Nations, and used by the United Nations – but only from the inception of the UN. Remember, though, limiting the scope of the exhibit merely to eliminate the most challenging aspects of a subject will not go unnoticed by the jury. Briefly describe how the exhibit will be organized. For Thematic exhibits an outline of the exhibit organization is required. For all other exhibits, it’s a good idea. Give the reader, especially the judges, a “roadmap” to the layout of the presentation. If you cannot summarize your exhibit organization in a brief outline, then there is probably a problem with the treatment that will make it difficult to follow and understand.

A typical organization for a Traditional exhibit of the UN First Issue would be for the stamps to be presented grouped by printer and type: Regular Issues printed by Enschede, Regular Issues by De La Rue, and Airmail Issues by De La Rue. Each “chapter” would start with an introduction to the stamps, the plate layout, and major production characteristics like cutouts, control numbers, etc. Then, each stamp in the group would be presented: essays, trials and proofs would be followed by examples of each printing, as well as errors, freaks and oddities, ending with examples of use on cover.

What else goes on the title page? Many include a brief description of what makes collecting this subject so challenging. For example, on the UNTEA exhibit, one would note that the stamps were only valid for a short period of time. Another factor to consider would be the literacy rate of the population, especially smaller villages and hamlets. Avoid statements like “Covers are hard to find.” Be specific. Tell the jury why the covers are scarce. Judges consider the challenge factor when determining an exhibit’s medal level. The challenge factor is like the difficulty factor in Olympic diving. You could also include a short list of major highlights in the exhibit, but no more than 10. It’s also a good idea to describe how you will indicate special items in the exhibit (e.g. matting, borders, dots, etc.) making it easier for both the judges and the general reader alike to find them. This is becoming more and more important as exhibit subjects become more esoteric. If there is room, a number of exhibitors like to place one “killer” item on the page that will grab the reader’s attention and make them say “Wow!” This is an effective attention-grabbing device that tempts the reader to look at the rest of the exhibit to see what other gems s/he may find. While judges must look through the whole exhibit, the attention-grabber sets the mood and says to the judge that they are to see something special and will enjoy this presentation.

The title page should be the first page prepared…and the last one, as well. Prepare a rough draft of the page first to give yourself a guide in developing the exhibit. As you build the presentation, you may alter the organization or even change the scope. Thus, the title page should also be the last page that you finalize for the exhibit. It is the most important page in the exhibit and proportionate care should be taken to ensure that it accurately guides the reader, especially the jury.

Write-up and Highlights

Most exhibitors over-write their exhibits. Many defend the verbosity of the prose explaining that they have to tell the jury how important everything is. Telling exhibitors to be brief with their write-up seems to contradict the advice that they must “educate” the jury. Indeed, you must tell the jury what’s important about your material, but do it succinctly. An exhibit is not a book. When confronted with the wordiness of his wonderful exhibit, the owner retorted that the heavy amounts of text benefited the reader and was for their edification. In the comfort of an armchair, I read through the entire exhibit at a relaxed pace. I finished two-and-a-half hours later! I certainly learned a lot, but such vast amounts of text are just not appropriate for an exhibit. Can you imagine standing on your feet for 2½ hours at a show to read the exhibit? Can you imagine a judge doing so?

The jury may have to examine and evaluate 20, 30 or more exhibits, filling 200 to 300 frames (3,200 to 4,800 pages!) at a national show. At a typical 3-day show, which starts on a Friday, the jury is expected to have the award levels determined so that the ribbons can be posted on the frames on Saturday morning. Even given that most juries start the process on Thursday evening, they have about 10-15 seconds to read each page. Do the jury and yourself a big favor. Reduce the text to what is essential. On the other hand, do not throw away your longer text, which is the product of much research and knowledge. Take that text and write articles for your society Journal, or perhaps publish your findings as a monograph or a book. You can then refer the jury members to those publications (via the Synopsis) and you will have shared your collection with many interested readers (and have made the editor of your society journal very happy). Tell the jury what they cannot see for themselves with their own eyes. It’s a waste of words to write “This 3¢ stamp on a no. 10 cover addressed to Toronto, Canada…” The judge can see that it’s a 3¢ stamp and they can see that it’s on a no. 10 envelope and they can see the address. Instead tell them what is not obvious: “Solo use paying the special treaty rate to Canada effective between…” Your 7th grade English teacher is going to scream, but you do NOT need to use full sentences in the exhibit write-up, either.

Use tables to summarize information. If you find yourself repeating the same type of data over and over, consider summarizing the information into an easily understood table. A good candidate for such treatment is postal rate information. I use tables in my UN First Issue exhibit to summarize data about cutouts, gum types and control numbers. A picture is worth a thousand words. Instead of describing in detail a plate variety or some hard-to-see detail, consider using an enlarged image of the object and caption it with a brief description. In turn, don’t blow up the entire stamp 400%, but just the portion necessary. Avoid overwhelming the philatelic material with images. While it may be necessary to educate the jury about the specifics of your material, you do not have to give detailed descriptions about philatelic processes. The caption “gutter snipes” conveys plenty of information. You do not need to go into a detailed description of the trimming process to describe such production freaks. Even a novice collector will quickly get it (see previous paragraph). While judges may need to be taught about the specifics of your material, they are, for the most part, well-educated about stamp production and philately in general. It is relatively safe to assume that the “general public”, which will consists mainly of fellow collectors at stamp shows, are also adequately educated. Make the text readable. Use a typeface with serifs, such as Times Roman or Garamond. Studies have shown that such fonts are easiest on the eyes. Use only one typeface throughout your exhibit and reserve the “fancy” fonts for headers and titles. Use a readable size, too. This article is prepared using 12-point text. The body of your text should be no larger than this and no smaller than point 10. You can use text as small as point 8 for captioning illustrations or providing information about certificates.

A friend of mine with a wonderful collection of 19th century covers was told over and over by numerous juries that he needed to reduce the text in his exhibit. He finally decided to take their advice and quite proudly displayed his re-worked exhibit at the next national show. However, he took the advice literally and reduced the text to point 8. Yes, it did take up less space on the page, but now, in addition to being verbose, it was virtually unreadable! While you should restrict the text to the use of just one font, you can make excellent use of capital letters, bold type and italicized text to draw the attention of the jury. For example, I use capital letters for text headers (e.g. “FIRST PRINTING”), bold type to indicate something special (e.g. “One of two known copies”) and italicized text for auxiliary, but interesting information (e.g. “cancel used for just 30 days”). Whatever manner you use special formats, use them consistently. It also helps to let the jury know what scheme you are using, too. Use a few sentences in the synopsis to describe how you will use special text formats.

In addition to the use of text to highlight your material, you should somehow indicate what the special items in your exhibit are. A viewer, particularly a judge, should be able to step back from your exhibit, and without reading any text, be able to point out “the good stuff.” Over time various methods for highlighting the key items in an exhibit have been employed, drifting in and out of fashion. Currently out of fashion is the use of colored dots to indicate levels of importance. Some exhibitors so overly used the dots that their exhibits appeared to have “measles.”

One technique that works well is “matting” or the use of colored backing paper to highlight key items. The width of the colored mat showing should be limited to no more than 2 mm. This method is particularly effective if all material is matted with a neutral backing, such as gray, and highlighted with a double mat in a bright color. In my UN First Issue exhibit, where all items are matted, I use a thin border of royal blue to highlight the gems. For an exhibit on early Czechoslovak stamps I use a bright red, which in contrast to the off-white primary mat gives a patriotic appearance. (The colors of the Czech flag are red, white and blue.) Mats also have the added advantage of making it easy to alter an exhibit and saving on mounts. A similar method is the use of borders as a highlight. With the widespread use of computers and word processing or desktop publishing software, it is quite easy to generate a simple, but elegant border to frame those special items. Avoid wide dark frames as those tend to detract from the material and draw attention to themselves.

The use of “white space” can also be employed in drawing attention to desired pieces. At The Stamp Show 2000 in London I was reading a postal history exhibit on the allied intervention in north Russia at the end of WWI. The pages were generally quite packed. When I came to a page that contained a single cover, I knew that this piece was very special – and it was. The text explained that it was the only known cover addressed to or from an American warship involved in the operation. For me it was particularly important as it was addressed to my Grandfather! Whatever method you choose to highlight your gems, let the jury know in the synopsis. Also, don’t overdo it. Highlighting more than a few key items will quickly lose its effect. A 7-foot man would draw a lot of attention walking down the street, but that same fellow on an NBA basketball court would hardly be noticed. Reserve highlighting for the truly special material.

The Synopsis

Coming into vogue in the early to mid 1990s, the synopsis has become a critical document in exhibiting in North America. The synopsis is generally a one to four page document (usually up to two sheets of paper) that allows you to communicate directly with the members of the jury. Typically, you provide a certain number of copies of the synopsis along with your application and the exhibit committee distributes them to the jury. It has been said that a well crafted synopsis can be worth one, and possibly two, medal levels to the skillful exhibitor. In its simplest form the synopsis is just an expanded version of the title page. Topics typically covered in the synopsis are background, scope, challenge factors, highlights and references. Each of these subjects should be addressed and expand upon the information provided in the title page. Don’t merely repeat the title page, though. That would be a waste of a grand opportunity (pun intended). Unless the historical background is pertinent to the philatelic aspect, keep the history lesson short. This is, after all, a philatelic exhibit. By contrast, if the history has a direct and significant impact on the philatelic subject, do include the key information.

Briefly explain why you chose the limits of the exhibit. Ending an exhibit at a given date because “that’s all that would fit in the frames” is a poor limiting factor. For example, I end my Swiss Official UN exhibit with issues of 1969 because that is when the UN European Office began issuing its own stamps, replacing the Swiss Officials. Additionally, the BIE merged with UNESCO ending that series of stamps, as well. Tell the jury what makes collecting this material so challenging. Were the stamps issued in small quantities? Were they only briefly valid for postal use? Are varieties scarce because of the very high quality of the printer? Were vast quantities destroyed before the public was aware of their existence? Tell them all about it, so that the judges will know what they’re looking at!

Once you’ve told them how tough the material is to acquire, then tell them about the gems that you have obtained and that you are presenting in the exhibit. Yes, brag. You have the judges’ attention, so use it to your best advantage. Here, you are free of taboos imposed in the exhibit. You can use words like “rare” and “scarce” with impunity – as long as it’s the truth, of course. However, it is far better to quantify what you mean by these words. “This is just one of four known covers with a solo franking paying an exact rate” has far more impact than “This is a rare cover.” If a census does not exist and hard numbers are not readily available, you can still describe the relative rarity via sentences like “This is the only example known to me after 25 years of avid collecting.” Let them know how good your stuff really is.

The synopsis is the perfect venue to explain various aspects of the exhibit, such as why certain material is absent (e.g. the only known copy is in the Queen’s collection). If condition is a factor, explain why the material is not pristine (e.g. mail to personnel in a combat zone may be wrinkled, stained or torn). This portion of the synopsis will grow over time. Each time the jury asks you a question at the critique, where they do not understand some aspect of the material or the presentation, is another opportunity to add an explanation to the synopsis.

Let the jury know that you are actively building and improving the exhibit. Mention recent additions and new discoveries. As judges grow acquainted with a display they may grow complacent towards it. Under pressure to evaluate several dozens of exhibits to meet the show deadline, a judge may skim a well-known exhibit in order to dedicate more time to one with which they are not familiar. Let them know that this is not the “same old” exhibit, but a vibrant, expanding work-in-progress. A synopsis should be revised and prepared for each separate show. Adding the show name and the date as a footer is a good idea. This document can and should also be used to describe any personal research that you’ve done. This is the place to let the jury know of any discoveries that you’ve made, censuses that you’ve conducted, and contributions that you’ve made to the general well of philatelic knowledge regarding this material. Such efforts are greatly appreciated by the jury and are appropriately rewarded when the ribbons are posted.

Lastly, provide the jury with a list of references. Give them an opportunity to learn about your collection so that they will know what they are looking at. List three or four pertinent, up-to-date references. Make sure the information in the books is accurate and current. Outdated or inaccurate information can hurt your exhibit. Let the jury know about any incorrect data in any of the references that you contradict in your exhibit. Be specific in your bibliography. If you are referencing a chapter of a book, say so and provide the page numbers. Don’t list just the title of a periodical, but provide the specific article title, volume, issue date and page numbers. The jury, as well as the staff at philatelic reference libraries, will thank you for your thoughtfulness. Don’t be afraid to list books, monographs, or articles that you have authored on the topic. It lets the jury know that you do know what you are displaying and are a real student of the material. Conversely, unless you are the only expert on the topic, don’t list only those works produced by yourself, but include works by other authorities. All references should be readily available via the American Philatelic Research Library and at any of the other major philatelic libraries around the country. If a publication you list is not currently available at these libraries, acquire copies and donate them. You will help your exhibit, benefit your fellow collectors, and may be able to take a tax deduction for the donated books.

Apply as early as possible, allowing the committee to send your synopsis early to the jury members. If your final synopsis is not ready when you apply, send preliminary copies (or copies of a version prepared for a previous show). Send the finalized version later. Doing so will give the judges time to acquire the reference material and prepare to evaluate your material. Make sure to provide the exhibit committee with the number of copies of your synopsis specified in the prospectus. Sending less than the requested number of copies will force the committee to make copies and possibly delay getting your synopsis into the hands of the judges.

The Critique

Every national show accredited by the American Philatelic Society is required to provide a venue where exhibitors can ask the jury for advice and explanations regarding the evaluation and award level of their exhibit(s). Many local and regional exhibitions also provide for a critique. Go to the critique, and go with an open mind. There is often a lot of good advice dispensed at these sessions. Stay and listen even after you have asked about your exhibit and received your response. Go to the critique even if you are not exhibiting. A lot can be learned from the problems and strengths of the other exhibits. Juries will often discuss the good aspects and practices of an exhibit as much as its shortcomings. Judges will ask the exhibitor questions, too. It’s not a one-way street to learning at the critique!

At national shows a room and time is set aside for this session, usually on a Saturday after the ribbons indicating the medal levels have been posted, but before the special awards and the Grand award winners are announced at the banquet. In an unfortunately confrontational format, the jury typically sits behind tables at one end of the room facing an audience of exhibitors and other interested parties. The chief judge will introduce each of the jurors and give a brief explanation of the rules for the critique. Exhibitors, starting with those whose exhibits have taken a Silver award or less, will be allowed to ask the jury a question regarding an exhibit. The classic question is “What can I do to improve my exhibit?” The exhibitor may be allowed a follow-up question. Exhibitors raise their hands to be recognized and each, in turn, is called upon to pose their question. When all exhibits with Silver or lower awards have been exhausted, the floor is opened to Vermeil winning exhibits and finally to the Gold award winners. When it is your turn, state your name, the name of the exhibit, the frame numbers and the medal level that the exhibit received. This gives the jury the information that they need to find their notes. Then, ask your question. Usually one member of the jury will be assigned as the first respondent to your exhibit. That judge will address your question, as well as identify aspects that s/he found particularly successful in your presentation and those that did not work. Other members of the jury may provide additional comments, as well. If the response is complex or requires a lengthy discussion, the juror may offer to meet with you outside the critique or at the frames. In this case make sure to see the judge immediately after the critique to set up a time. Once the appointment is made, make sure that you are prompt in meeting the judge at the specified time and place. There probably are other exhibitors who need to meet with that judge and s/he may have an early flight on Sunday. Remember, the members of the jury are volunteers. They receive a meager stipend which covers only a small portion of their expenses at the show. Like you, they are collectors who love the hobby. Their goal is not to bust your ego or to put down your exhibit. Rather, they are eager to see you build that collection into a successful exhibit. They love nothing more than to see an exhibit improve and expand over time, reveling in the exhibitors’ successes.


The playing field of exhibiting has been greatly leveled. It is no longer the exclusive territory of the wealthy collector of “classic” stamps. “Checkbook exhibiting” has been largely eliminated and Difficulty of Acquisition has almost completely replaced Price as a major factor in evaluating exhibits. With the increasing diversity of material being presented and the latitude in styles of displaying this material, it is more and more important for an exhibitor to work with the jury to help them understand their exhibit. Twenty-five years ago when exhibits consisted primarily of classic material from a small group of “important” countries, one could expect the judges to be experts on the subject. Now, with exhibits on such esoteric topics as “Latvian Postage Due Uses” or “Postal History of UNOGIL Forces” the exhibitors need to take responsibility to ensure that the jury understands the display.

Exhibiting has evolved from displays of rare items to philatelic studies, with well-developed stories that progress from beginning to main body to conclusion. The scope of exhibits has become more and more narrow and depth of study has greatly increased. The “game” has completely changed, a vast improvement in my opinion, so we cannot expect the old model for evaluating exhibits to persist. In the new model, the exhibitor works with the jury to ensure that a mutually satisfactory evaluation is conducted and the proper award level is presented. The practices and methods described in this article will go a long way to helping the jury know what they are looking at, and hopefully help you achieve your exhibiting goals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Anthony F. Dewey is currently president of the United Nations Philatelists and a world recognized authority on the UN First Issue. Tony's UN exhibits have won numerous National Gold Awards and he has helped put UN exhibiting on the "map" in this country. Tony's contributions to the exhibiting community are most welcome and we sincerely appreciate his sharing his experiences and knowledge with us.

First in a series.....Getting started in competitive exhibiting. Introduction to the one-frame classification

A new and exciting way to enter the field of competitive UN exhibiting is through the new one-frame classification. Really not new, but just recently gaining in popularity and exposure at the national level, the one-frame class enables the exhibitor to create a complete presentation within the space available in a single frame (typically (16) 8.5" x 11" pages or (12) 11.75" x 11.75" pages. The challenge therefore is to choose ones subject very carefully in order to properly "cover" the entire subject within the limitations of only a few exhibit pages. The benefit to the novice exhibitor is that the idea of one frame is not seen as a daunting task. Here is a quick tutorial on one approach to preparing such an exhibit.

  1. As noted above most important is to limit the scope of the exhibit to something that can be covered in a single frame. Clearly a comprehensive exhibit on the printing varieties of the UN first issues would not be a feasible subject. Rather, an exhibit that explores the 1.5c UN#2 precancel issue and the official use of the stamp would be practical. Perhaps a comprehensive look at the design and fabrication of a single issue (given the newly available UN archive material) would also be feasibly covered with a 12 or 16 page exhibit.
  2. Once a reasonable subject is chosen, take some time to develop the story. Start with a simple outline. What works best; a chronological study of stamp production and use, some alternative approach???? Be creative but be sure to compose an outline that make sense. After all you are trying to tell a story, a complete story at that, so really take the time to study your material and be logical in your approach.
  3. Start assembling the items in your collection that you may use to tell the story. I purposely said "may use" as an exhibit is not simply a presentation of your collection, it is a careful selection of choice pieces from your collection that provide support to the story you are trying to develop. Use the best examples of items you have. If the only example you have of a particular stamp or rare cancel is clearly philatelic USE it. As your exhibit matures you can always replace items with better examples. Again this is all part of the fun of exhibiting and collecting.
  4. Once you have selected choice pieces for display start thinking about arrangement on the pages. Importantly you must marry the supporting text from your story with the material. Do not try to overpower the stamps or covers with text. Be concise if possible but be practical. If a topic deserves or requires considerable write up to convey its importance be sure to include that information. Again be creative. Perhaps spreading that particular topic over two pages may help to minimize the appearance of overpowering text. In any event spread you material out on a blank page and try using some cutout text and place them around the page until it appears to flow and is pleasing to view. Continue in this manner until you have developed the entire exhibit and then take a few steps back. View the mock-up and see if the pages flow well. Is the story coming across easily. Can I follow the flow of the exhibit. Is my eye drawn to the philatelic objects readily. Does the layout help to develop the story. These are the things you should keep in mind as you work on the draft form of the presentation.
  5. After you have gotten the draft version to a point you are satisfied with, then and only then should actual production of the exhibit take place. With today's desktop publishing software and exhibition grade papers, covers mounts, and page protectors readily available from large hobby supply companies, the final preparation of the exhibit is really within everyone's reach. Again the most important job is to DO YOUR HOMEWORK up front before any exhibit page preparation begins. By spending the time to thoroughly research and develop your subject, carefully choose representative examples from your collection, and prepare a logical well-constructed story, you will be well on your way to creating a lovely and perhaps award-winning exhibit.
  6. Best of luck and remember to have FUN. That's what it's all about.