Preparation of Philatelic Displays and Competitive Exhibits


John Hayward, Chairman of the British Thematic Association (BTA) has written a guide to Thematic Exhibiting. It is based on a Thematic Exhibiting Seminar held at the Royal Philatelic Society London in June 2011 with the aim of encouraging more competitors in the Thematic Class of Stampex and in the BTA Cup, and of improving standards in thematic competitions at Federation and National level. It covers all the main aspects of thematic exhibiting for 16/64 pages in a simple and straightforward manner.

Guidelines for the Preparation of Philatelic Displays and Competitive Exhibits

With sections covering the key topics of Presentation, Condition and Rarity, Philatelic Importance, Treatment, Philatelic and Related Knowledge, Personal Study and Research.

by Mark Bailey


The most important thing to bear in mind is that exhibiting competitively is not the same as giving a society display. When you display, you can show whatever you want, though you obviously want it to be interesting to other people. When exhibiting competitively, you are subjecting your display to being judged by others. Competing means aiming to please the judges, and unfortunately a good display doesn't necessarily make for a good competitive exhibit. However, the following guidelines may assist exhibitors whether preparing philatelic displays or submitting competitive exhibits, though it is important to bear in mind that all judging is inevitably subjective and there are no hard and fast rules to guarantee a high score or a winning display. The hints and tips are mainly directed at exhibitors of Postal History, Open Class and Aerophilately, but the majority of the comments and criteria can be interpreted for all aspects and classes of philately.

Any type of philatelic display should identify clearly the main points of the exhibit and create an impression that can be absorbed quickly and easily.

All classes of exhibit require an introductory or title page. This should introduce the subject of the display and show the exhibitor's knowledge of the material they have chosen and help people to appreciate the significance of key items on display. In the case of a thematic display, it is necessary to include a plan to introduce the material. The page should explain what is being shown, and point out anything that you consider to be particularly noteworthy.


Treatment is essentially your ability to tell a story, and is judged on your selection of material and the sequence in which you show it. When selecting material to include, remember that a good traditional exhibit should typically show both stamps and usage. Also, it is better to be representative than comprehensive. For example, it is better to show the 5 key values of a long set than a complete set of 100 denominations.

In working out a sequence for your exhibit, the most important consideration is to allow people to see clearly what you have done. A sequence may be strictly chronological or arranged in appropriate sections - or you might choose to show mint stamps in the first half followed by examples of usage and documents in the second.

The Treatment of the exhibit requires an evaluation of completeness and correctness of the selected material made by the exhibitor to illustrate the chosen subject. As for any story, an exhibit should have a clear beginning, a central theme and a logical ending. The title and clearly defined plan, or introductory page, are important parts of an exhibit which explain to the viewer what the exhibitor is trying to show. The title page plays a major part in setting the scene, giving an outline of what you are showing and why. It needs to capture the viewer's interest in your subject and whet their appetite for the philatelic material you show.

The following should be considered when evaluating the Treatment criterion:

Does the exhibit conform to the plan and introduction page?
Is the exhibit balanced in relation to the plan, the introduction page and the scope?
Is the exhibit complete; are any important parts or objects missing?
Is the exhibit space used properly for showing the material?
Is scarce or expensive material duplicated?
Is the material proper and relevant philatelic material for the subject matter?
Does the display show originality of approach?

Philatelic and Related Knowledge, Personal Study and Research

Philatelic and Related Knowledge, Personal Study and Research require the following evaluation:

Knowledge is the degree of knowledge of the exhibitor as expressed by the items chosen for display and the related comments

Personal Study is the proper analysis of the items chosen for display

Research is the presentation of new facts relating to the chosen subjects.

The exhibit should therefore demonstrate a full and accurate appreciation of the chosen subject and careful selection from the available material, detailed study of existing information and any contribution of new information.

To show real personal study, your write-up should contain information beyond what can be found in major catalogues. You should demonstrate the breadth and depth of your reading by referring to relevant material in your write-up. A list or references at the foot of the first (or relevant) page is recommended. Pretty much regardless of your field, fruitful areas for research would include (on the stamp side) changes of watermark, perforation, paper and plate flaws and (on the usage side) rates, cancels, and earliest and latest recorded dates. If your exhibit includes stamps not listed in the catalogue, label them clearly as such, since these are also evidence of personal research.

The following should be considered when evaluating the criterion of Philatelic and Related Knowledge, Personal Study and Research:

Are the correct items chosen for the display? Why? What don't you have?
Are the displayed items properly analysed?
Is any information missing about the dates / postal rates / routes / markings etc.?
Is the provided information correct?
Does the exhibit show outstanding personal research?
Is new and original research documented?
Has it been published?
Is available research used successfully?
Is the information given balanced against the introductory plan?

Philatelic Importance

Philatelic Importance requires an evaluation of philatelic significance of the subject chosen by the exhibitor, in terms of scope, degree of difficulty of the subject and the philatelic interest of the exhibit. Philatelic importance can be a highly subjective question, but generally speaking, in a competition, points are awarded according to how mainstream the subject is within the world of philately. It is generally the case that you will score more for major countries (such as Great Britain, British Colonies, Western Europe, USA, China, and Japan) than for minor countries (such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and French Colonies), and more for 19th century material than for early 20th, with the modern period (post-1960) usually scoring lowest.

The following points should be considered when evaluating the Importance criterion:

Is this exhibit important, and if so, then why is it important?
Is the area and period important?
Does your write-up make it important?
Is a wide enough area covered?
Does the exhibit cover a long enough period of time?
Does the exhibit cover a small field of collecting?
Should the scope be enlarged or reduced?
Is this an exhibit difficult to build and improve upon, with hard to find material?

Condition and Rarity

Condition and rarity are obvious but can often be contradictory. The exhibitor will have to decide whether to display a scarce cover in poor condition or a not so scarce cover in a better condition. One must bear in mind the best quality available. Modern material should be in first class condition. Rarity is directly related to the philatelic items shown and the relative scarcity of material available. Rarity is not always equivalent or proportional to value, as value relates also to demand. In competitions as a general guideline, good condition, clear legible postal marking and cachets, and a good general appearance are rewarded, while poor quality is penalised.

If you are certain that an item is truly the only one in existence (e.g. a piece of original artwork) then it is acceptable to use the word "unique", otherwise when describing rarity, avoid relative terms such as "scarce" or "rare" - rather state facts such as "unlisted in the catalogues", "one of 5 recorded [or issued] examples", "earliest recorded usage".

Stamps on covers and other items should be in good condition. Crash and postal damaged covers and items are an exception to the general rule on condition. However, the postal markings applied to salvage covers should be as clear as possible. Obviously faked or repaired items should be mentioned in the description.

The following points should be considered when evaluating the Condition criterion:

Is the quality of the rare material of an acceptable condition?
Is the quality of more common material immaculate?
Are faked or repaired objects mentioned in the description?
Are postmarks and manuscript markings legible?
Are stamps, vignettes and labels shown in good condition?

Remember that condition is evaluated relative to what is available.

The following points should be considered when evaluating the Rarity criterion:

Does the exhibit show all the objects of its field?
Are items of this field of exhibiting easy to acquire?
Does the exhibit display newly discovered items?
Is common material dominating the exhibit?

Presentation, write-up and arrangement

The presentation should complement the treatment of the exhibit by its general layout and clarity. Remember that your exhibit is a communication, and as such it has to be accurate, relevant and clear. The presentation should enhance the understanding and attractiveness of the exhibit. Use as few words as possible, link the elements of your story together, explain anything complicated (especially relating to rates or usage), and point out rarities and other highlights. A nicely presented exhibit may assist in a better understanding of the Treatment, Knowledge and Rarity of the exhibit. It is not necessary to repeat the title of the exhibit on every page. Use page headings that correspond to sub-headings in your plan or show the progress of your "story".

Illustrate relevant postal markings only when the originals are not clear to the observer. When it is desirable to illustrate significant markings on the reverse side of a cover, they may either be drawn or illustrated with a reproduction (photograph, photocopy or scanned image), but a reproduction should be apparent as such to the observer. Colour copies, scans or photographs should be reduced at least 25% in size from the original and clearly marked as a reduced size copy. Individual postal markings may also be shown at larger than normal size (at least 125%) to clarify a particular point.

Most people opt for black type on white pages, using a standard font such as Arial or Times New Roman. These options can be varied, and indeed a pale fawn or cream-coloured sheet can provide a pleasant contrast, but bear in mind that major variations will seem to make a statement, so check that it's a statement you want to make! For example, a stylish modern font may be appropriate for an exhibit of modern stamps but may look incongruous alongside 19th century material. To keep your presentation looking consistent, avoid mixing too many different fonts. Also, it is vital to ensure that the philatelic material is not overshadowed by the font, the paper, the colour palette or any illustrations on the page, and generally coloured paper should not be used. It is important that the colour of pages is consistent within an exhibit. Finally on fonts, don't make people strain their eyes! For legibility, you should use at least 12pt and preferably 14pt, perhaps keeping larger type for headings or emphasis. Smaller fonts are acceptable for supplementary (often non-philatelic) information.

Exhibits are displayed in frames of sheets arranged in rows. The pages are arranged to flow from the top left along the top row and so on from left to right with the last sheet placed in the bottom right hand position on the final row. When considering the overall impression of an exhibit this arrangement should be borne in mind, looking at the balance of objects on each page and how they appear together, considering the look of a whole frame at a time. Typical frame arrangements are 3 rows of 3 or 4 sheets (i.e. 9 to 12 sheets), or 4 rows of 4 sheets (i.e. 16 sheets). The 16-sheet frame is the standard for UK National exhibitions. Usually, competition rules set a maximum sheet size (typically 29½ x 24½ cm, portrait format). It is possible to make double-width sheets (29½ x 49 cm), which will allow you to display very wide documents or long covers. It is recommended that double sheets are used rather than mounting long covers diagonally or vertically.

When mounting stamps, you might want to consider 12-18 as a working maximum per sheet. More than this will usually look crowded, and imply that the stamps are rather common. Conversely, you can highlight the importance of really rare material by putting just two or three stamps on a page.

The following points should be considered when evaluating the Presentation criterion:

Is there too little, or too much, material on the sheets?
Is there a lack of balance between the sheets in the exhibit?
Are reproductions not reduced by at least 25% of the original?
Is the text visually unattractive?
Is the information easy to read and correctly spelled?
Does the information overwhelm the objects, i.e. is it too informative?
Are there too many irrelevant illustrations or photocopies?

Some Tips

The Introductory or Title Page is intended to introduce the subject of the exhibit, give structure and set out its scope and content to the viewer. It may also include something pictorial (e.g. a relevant map, picture, proof, or cover) for a one or two frame exhibit. An Introductory Page is required for all classes of exhibit and in a competition a judge will deduct marks for the failure to include one.

The title must agree with the contents of the exhibit.

In the case of a competition entry, the subject should be chosen carefully, ensuring that the entry is appropriate to the class.

The exhibit should demonstrate a clear "story line" throughout.

An exhibit should finish with strong material and a clean end to the subject of the display.

An exhibit should not span too great a period of time for the number of pages available.

Your ideal exhibit is something coherent, something you are excited about, something you can show well, and something you have researched.

Do not mention different types (such as "Type A" or "Type II") unless you explain what they are with a reference to the relevant catalogue.

Ensure that the material is securely mounted - you don't want the embarrassment of items coming loose and slipping down the displayed sheets.

Think about ways of setting off your stamps, covers, postcards and documents, such as by adding a thin printed coloured frame or a contrasting border to outline them against the sheet. This may be printed onto the sheet or consist of a piece of suitably coloured paper or card mounted between the displayed item and the sheet.

Text should ideally be printed, typed or neatly handwritten directly onto the sheets, and using pieces of paper bearing the text cut out and stuck onto the sheets, though not ruled out if it suits the requirements, is best avoided - these are easily misaligned. Unless you are a brilliant calligrapher, your write-up is probably best typed, stencilled or word-processed.

Where there is a need to indicate exact points on stamps or covers, arrows cut from coloured self-adhesive labels make a useful item.

The sheets in the middle of a frame are naturally the most prominent and need to contain the best material, even if this means rearranging your sequence slightly. The bottom row of a frame may be used for the less impressive sheets.

If entering a competition, there is no substitute for reading - and complying with - the rules and terms and conditions of the competition.

Competitive exhibits are usually judged using the seven criteria outlined in this document. Read the competition rules to find out the marking scheme, but these typically account for the following percentages of the marks:

25% - Philatelic and related knowledge
20% - Treatment
15% - Rarity
10% - Personal study and research
10% - Relative condition
10% - Philatelic importance
10% - Presentation, write-up and arrangement

The bottom line:

Whether for a display or for a competition entry, the sheets should be written-up such that they are self-explanatory, tell a story and enhance the items displayed.

About the author and the information in this document

Mark Bailey is a member of the Royal Philatelic Society London, the Channel Islands Specialists' Society (CISS) and the Wokingham & District Philatelic Society. A stamp collector since childhood, Mark's philatelic displays have won in competitions judged to national standards at the CISS and also at informal competitions at his local Society.

The information in this document is drawn not only from the author's experience but also from a number of other sources, including guidance from the Channel Islands Specialists' Society, the "Guidelines for Competitive Exhibitors" produced by the Revenue Society, notes for members of the Wokingham & District Philatelic Society who are entering the annual competitions, and hints and tips for competitive exhibiting that were provided by the former Hampshire Philatelic Federation.

Although exhibiting competitively is not the same as giving a Society display, guidelines that apply to both aspects of showing philatelic material are contained within this document. They are about getting the most from the effort put in to mounting and writing up the items, and helping ensure that the material is shown to the best advantage, so that the main points of the exhibit are clearly identified and the display creates an impression that can be enjoyed by those viewing it.

Copyright © 2011 Mark Bailey

Copyright © 2017 Wokingham & District Philatelic Society
Webmaster: Mark Bailey
Last Updated: 24 October 2017
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