Summer road trip to an art museum finds numismatic focus

With a bit of creativity, nearly all museums can relate to coin hobby
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/29/16
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For me, summertime means road trips, and a recent journey took me to the David Owsley Museum of Art on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The museum is not large in size but is nearly encyclopedic in scope, with a 2013 edition expanding galleries for non-Western art by nearly 50 percent. 

Its collection areas include ancient, medieval, Renaissance, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century and modern art, and arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The museum also houses European and American decorative arts and furniture as well as works on paper, including drawings, prints, and photographs.

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Within these galleries are dozens of ties to numismatics. Some are obvious, while others require a bit of effort. Going to a museum with the intention of finding numismatic links can be a great way of changing up the way you interact with your hobby. What follows are a few of the connections I made during my recent visit. 

Ancient coin display

Ancient coins can be proble­matic for museums in that their small size makes them challenging to display (and susceptible to theft when left in storage). 

A solution that I’ve seen at several museums is to display ancient coins in large groups with an interactive panel for viewers to receive more information on the individual pieces displayed. 

At this museum the coins are generally arranged chronologically and are presented against a clear panel so the viewer can see the reverse of the coins. 

The Ned H. and Gloria A. Griner Collection of Greek and Roman Coins has substantial text accompanying each coin, providing context for the coins. The text for the Roman Republic aes grave — a large 60-millimeter coin — includes images of the obverse and the reverse and explains the coin to a noncollector while providing information of interest to numismatists. 

This particular label states, “The Aes Grave was the earliest known coinage of central Italy, although lumps and bars of bronze — some bearing images — were used earlier as a medium of exchange.” 

The coin depicts Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions and endings. Generally depicted with two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past, he carried broad meanings in ancient Rome. The prow on the reverse of the coin represents naval victory.

Coins with these designs are usually dated to around 225 B.C. 

The dual-facing head — the janiform — is familiar to those fond of ancient coins. Viewers typically think of it used in ancient Roman art, but seeing it appropriated by an African artist whose work was also on exhibit in the museum helps us understand the universality of the theme. The West African artist’s work, a two-headed mask dating from around 1900, is made of animal skin stretched over wood. 

The mask has two faces: a male and a female with the male face being darker, with open eyes and mouth and vertical scarification on the forehead. The lighter skinned female face is blind, with two large discs at the temples and three small projections above the eyebrows. 

The experience of viewing a three-dimensional Janus head differs from seeing it on a coin. Where a coin can only use the side view to present both, in sculptural form both heads exhibit different personalities and the side view changes. It makes me wonder whether any coins exist on which the artist took an approach similar to that taken by the artist of the mask, incorporating both facing portraits and a traditional Janus-style portrait.  

Interacting with the art

Coins play a more direct role in people’s interaction with a large bronze Japanese Buddha sculpture by Master Tokewaki dating from 1680 during Japan’s Edo Period (1603 to 1868). 

Lincoln cents have been placed before the Buddha, similar to the offerings that would be placed in the Buddha’s original setting in a temple. 

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