I have a confession to make. I am a thematic exhibitor and I want a large gold medal. All fellow collectors are probably saying, so do we.
Let me add to my problem. I exhibit internationally according to Federation Internationale de Philatelie (FIP) guidelines and I do not have deep pockets. Actually my pockets have become shallow with the years, especially after marriage and the birth of my daughter – and yes, I can hear many fellow collectors agreeing with me and commiserating. I actually have a large gold medal at the national level, which I won in 2016 at Zaragoza, Spain.
I also have an additional problem; my subject matter is modern. What does that mean? It means that there is no classic material that fits my theme. If you take a subject like lions, or the heart, you have beautiful material available, much of which is prephilatelic, but my own subject, not so much.
I exhibit the history of Israel and the nation’s struggle for survival (Figure 1).
Figure 1. From the author’s exhibit, a page illustrating the Declaration of the State of Israel.
I started exhibiting nationally in 1990.
It is hard to believe that I am talking about three decades ago. The international rules were different then. I exhibited in what is known today as Thematics 2.0, meaning that I used standard exhibition page layouts and gave brief textual descriptions of my stamps, basically pulling stamps out of my album and mounting them on an exhibit page. My exhibit was called “The Arab Israeli Conflict.” I received a national bronze medal and I was not very happy. Part of the problem was that the judges did not really know how to handle a thematic exhibit.
But I continued exhibiting for a few reasons; the first was to show my stamps. If you keep them at home, then others cannot enjoy them with you. Second, for me personally, it is very enjoyable to prepare for an exhibition and then display it and be there to discuss my exhibit with others. It is a bit of a rush.
After a few years of exhibiting, I advanced to what became known as Thematics 2.5,which means that I introduced material that was diversified, such as POW mail, crash covers and other items, not just simply stamps and meters.
This bore fruit and I was awarded a national vermeil medal with 83 points, which enabled me to exhibit internationally.
I improved on this only slightly until someone told me that I need to rethink how to introduce better material. Up until this point, I had made the mistake of calling my exhibit, “The Arab Israeli Conflict,” beginning it in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared. However, that was quite myopic thinking on my part as there was the buildup to the declaration, and before that, the Holocaust, and before that, the British Mandate and the League of Nations, which not only enabled the creation of the state but also outlined its borders. In essence, my exhibit took on a different look and needed to be renamed. Hence my exhibit was renamed: “Holocaust, Statehood and the Struggle for Survival” (Figure 2). I had a five-frame exhibit and every frame was a different chapter. Quite stringent, of course, but at least my exhibit plan had balance.
Figure 2. An early exhibit title page.
I exhibited this a few times, receiving an international award of a vermeil medal. However, once again I was now stuck. My exhibit remained at 82, 83 points. Judges at the jury critique simply said, “You need better material.” I have heard that in English, Hebrew, German and French. It still does not help you much. It is a comment basically saying, “We don’t have a comment.”
At the international exhibition in 2008 in Tel Aviv, one judge turned to me and said, “Be serious with your exhibit please.” That was insulting, hurtful and inappropriate at the same time. Just think that in order to prepare for an exhibit, you spend ages not only writing it up but also on the mounting, the windowing and the like, and then you get comments with no take-away message. Shall I give up?
I was actually thinking, what is the point of a jury critique if they don’t actually have anything to add? You spend money for the privilege of displaying and then you travel thousands of miles away and you have no advice to take home.
What material am I missing? As far as I knew, the material that I had was the best available. If they knew of better material, how about letting me in on the secret? The truth is, the judges do not know of better material, but when you look at an exhibit, you can actually see whether it warrants a higher medal or not. Looking at other exhibits at the same exhibition, I could see that my exhibit was not at the same level. Others had proofs, essays, artwork, errors and the like, which I simply did not have.
I joined the American Association of Philatelic Exhibitors (AAPE) and paid for a critique and got some good points, but nothing that suggested how to improve. It may be that the problem was the subject itself.
As a thematic exhibitor, you have to know your own subject from top to bottom; you are the expert. If you exhibit computers, you may get a judge who also collects or exhibits that and can say what you are missing or what you should do. The same goes for many subjects, but I have a subject with decades of personal research and knowledge, so can a judge really say what I should or should not have?
In essence, someone can say something like, “what about doing a philatelic study of the first postage stamp of Israel, the Doar Ivri.” However, I have heard some judges say that it is not for them to tell you what to do, but to judge you and what you have. I am okay with that, but if you give someone a low result, explain why.
So what is the next step? You need to rethink. A judge turned to me and said, “Write the story first and then look for suitable material. Forget what you have now, write a story.” The truth is that thematic exhibiting is all about a story. It is not a topic, but a theme. So I set out to rethink.
In thematic exhibiting, you can get 15 points for your title and plan page, 15 for your development and 5 for innovation. I figured that I should aim as high as possible in that category because once again, I don’t have deep pockets. Presentation is another 5 points, so it needs to look good. This was in the days when the use of various colors on the same page was frowned upon. So the aim is to get as many of those 40 points as possible.
I am not a writer (well, I wasn’t in 2008; my book was only written in 2011. If anyone is interested, it is about funny stories from the world of dating as a middle-aged man.) How do many stories start? “Once upon a time…” If I start off like that, I have to go to the very beginning. What is the very beginning? The Holocaust? No, the Jewish people have been in the Holy Land for more than 3,000 years. Wait a moment, the Jewish people? An idea popped into my head, a new title, “The Jewish Homeland, the Struggle for Survival” (Figure 3)
Figure 3. The title page from a later exhibit.
So now that I have a title and want to write a story from the beginning, I then have to go the beginning, meaning the Book of Genesis from the Bible.
I have to start with Abraham. So I wrote the chapters that I wanted and then within each chapter wrote a story. Of course, only the first page starts off with “Once upon a time.”
While thinking of my concept, my storyline appeared. I wanted to show G-d’s promise to Abraham (Abram) and other relevant Bible stories. I wanted to show how we became the Palestinian refugees when the Romans expelled us (well, some of us) and then our return home. After that I wanted to talk about the British Mandate (Figure 4) and, of course, the Holocaust. Then I continue to independence and our multiple wars, including against terror; our lack of acceptance and recognition; and finally our search for peace. By the time I had written all this down, I was happy. Now it was time to look for material.
I found some of the material and sold other material; don’t we all do that? It was difficult to part with some material, but as I said, I don’t have deep pockets. While writing everything up, I made sure that each item had detailed accompanying texts. This is actually an FIP regulation. Today, this is known as Thematics 3.0. What is the difference? In the past you could lump a whole bunch of philatelic items with only a single line of text explaining them. Who knew what the relevance of a certain item was to the theme?
Figure 4. The British Mandate for Palestine illustrated in the author’s exhibit.
After finding the initial material, it was time to exhibit again. And you know what, I won a higher medal – a large vermeil! I decided to enter Rome 2009 and travel there. Rome is a beautiful city, so why not? I went there and got a point higher. Who was one of my judges? The same judge who said, “Be serious with your exhibit please.” You know what he said this time? “I am glad you took my advice.”
So, I continued exhibiting and improving my material but never got more than 87 points. I remained there for four years, not really understanding what the problem was, hearing the same blurb again and again. Truthfully, it is easier to tell someone who has a bad exhibit what to do than to guide someone with a fairly good exhibit. (Yes, I know I am blowing my own trumpet.) Finally a judge in a critique said, “This page is a large silver page” (Figure 5). I looked at the page and I did not understand. It had two very scarce slogan cancels and some stamps.
Shall I give up? Actually, what he was trying to tell me was that if a page looks inexpensive, it brings down the overall exhibit. At FIP level, the judges may have 30 minutes to look at your exhibit and if there is an uninteresting page, they don’t look at it. Who cares that in 30 years, this was the only example I have seen? If the page is uninteresting, they move on.
So again, after so many years, and a lot of effort, blood, sweat and tears, I asked myself, “Shall I give up and sell it all?” One judge told me that I would never get more than a vermeil medal with my theme. I had proven him wrong but maybe I had reached my own zenith.
Figure 5. The “Large Silver” page, showing the only known example of this meter and a hard-to-find slogan.
I also faced another problem. I had exhibited far too many times with only five frames and it was now time to increase to eight frames. That means going from 80 exhibit pages to 128, an extra 48 pages! To do that, you have to keep the story fresh and have the best material available. Yes, sounds easy, doesn’t it? Someone told me that it is not a problem, and instead of one page on waterfalls, he would have five! To me, that means that there is a problem with thematic development.
My wife and I had just gone through our fifth miscarriage and we were devastated. I thought to myself that it would have been nice to teach my child about our heritage and all of a sudden an idea formed in my mind. Of course, I can: through philately. Philately is also a tool with which we can spread messages, and to teach, so why not totally change my concept?
A star was born, a young boy, 10 years old, who was born in Jerusalem and was given the name David by his parents. If you didn’t know, King David entered Jerusalem 3,000 years ago.
So what about young David? David is the subject of the exhibit. During the day he goes to school where this exhibit shows all of this history, but instead of doing it in a way that reads like a history book, it is displayed through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy named after King David. At school, he is taught Bible stories and Jewish history.
However, when he comes home, he asks his family questions and each family member answers him, from their own experience and in their own way of speaking. In this manner, the thematic language is kept simple. We do not need to obfuscate or discombobulate, using big words that many people do not understand anyway.
So, young David asks his family questions and on the last page of the chapter, his question is finally answered. Most family members, from David’s great-grandparents to his mother, take part in the story. As an example, Bobba, David’s great-grandmother, tells him about living through the Holocaust. David asks her, “Bobba, what is that tattoo on your arm?” (Figure 6). She tells him about the rise of evil and her survival. The entire story is told with the appropriate material. Naturally, the story is told from a Jewish/Israeli point of view.
Figure 6. A Holocaust Remembrance Day stamp used in the author’s exhibit.
At this time there was an air of change in exhibiting and no longer were we bound to specific page sizes. We could basically do what we wanted, as long as it fit in the row of the frame! I decided to exhibit three rows to a frame. That had two distinct advantages in my view: the frame does not look crowded and an eight-frame exhibit is 96 pages! Quite do-able! I decided on a page size of 28 centimeters (11 inches) square so that it would fit in American-sized frames (letter size) and through the AAPE, I found a supplier who could make protectors for me. Unfortunately, he now requires a minimum order of $300, so if anyone knows of a supplier, please let me know.
I read more about what is permitted in thematic exhibiting, which can include advertising covers, free franking and many other items, and I did my best to incorporate them into my exhibit. An advertising cover for use in exhibitions is different from the term in America. It is not an envelope of the Lawrence Cookie Company with a logo, but rather postal stationery with advertisements, which would have had a reduction in price because the advertiser subsidized the letter.
Because this was written in first person, I felt that the title needed to change and hence the title became, “The Jewish Homeland, Our Struggle for Survival” (Figure 7).
Figure 7. The title page from the latest iteration of the author’s exhibit.
I now had everything done and ready and was waiting for an exhibit. The European championship popped up in 2015 and I entered. I got my first international gold medal and won my class, the History Class. This win actually fell on my birthday. If I were a dog my tail would be wagging so much it would probably have flown off by itself! I exhibited in New York 2016 and received a special prize.
I have exhibited this a few times worldwide and get 92 or 93 points, but the large gold medal is still avoiding me. Time for another exhibit rewrite?
Lawrence Fisher is a systems analyst and senior computer programmer, skills he learned while serving in the Israel Defence Forces. He started collecting stamps almost 60 years ago but only got serious about philately in 1982. He started exhibiting in 1990 and has reached an international gold medal with multiple awards for treatment. Lawrence has a YouTube channel called "The Stories behind the stamps" (https://www.youtube.com/@StoriesBehindStamps), in which he talks about the story and not the stamps themselves. His channel appeals to the collector and the non-collector alike. He is also an author and his book is sold on Amazon. Lawrence is married with a single daughter and lives in Israel.