When you think of the Smithsonian Institution, what comes to mind? The museum and its exhibits? An award-winning monthly magazine? Or when you think Smithsonian, are you wondering about its next set of legal troubles?
If I say San Diego Zoo, what do you think of? Famous institution known for its progressive zoo exhibits and educational outreach programs? Or does thinking about the San Diego Zoo remind you it has another board election coming up where all the animal-feed suppliers will be vying for your vote to elect them to another seat at the trough?
If I say American Numismatic Association Money Museum, what comes to mind besides the recently acknowledged thefts?
What I find is that most people confuse the ANA organization, its structure and goals and board members and all of their “stuff,” with the ANA Money Museum, as if they were one and the same. If only they were. One is the dog. One is the tail. The problem is that for many years the tail has been wagging the dog.
My primary purpose is to offer a positive suggestion on how the ANA could change its organizational structure in such a way that it could avoid many of the problems and issues that now plague it and that would allow the ANA Money Museum to become the dog and not the rump tail of the organization.
During my too brief tenure as curator of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum, longtime Executive Director Ed Rochette, my staff and I worked together in upgrading the ANA museum from a sleepy little display of coins in the basement at headquarters into a world-class destination point that exhibited some of the most interesting and informative museum displays in the country. We increased the museum visitorship from a few hundred to more than 20,000 per year; we rotated three, world-class exhibits a year, and we accessioned hundreds of new numismatic objects into the collection. We enlarged a network of museum volunteers called FANAM (Friends of the ANA Museum and named for a small Indian coin) who greatly added to the body of knowledge regarding the collection. The museum store greatly expanded its product line, including a renewed emphasis on numismatic literature. We developed traveling exhibits like the “1913 Nickel” and the “1804 Bust Dollar.” We won multiple popularity awards from Colorado Springs’ alternative newspaper, and most important, we never had a theft, break-in or claim of damage against the museum in the time I was there.
Behind the scenes, I was trying to increase the level of professionalism at the museum by starting the process that would lead to actual accreditation by the American Association of Museums — to become like the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian and actually be a professional, accredited organization.
I insisted all museum employees join the AAM as members and their memberships were paid out of museum funds. Whenever there was a new job opening, I tried to hire museum professionals rather than another ardent numismatist anxious to study coins. My staff and I took tours of other museums to see how they handled certain issues. I started a class at ANA Summer Seminar titled “Numismatics for the Museum Professional” that was very well received and included visiting curators from the Smithsonian, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Carson City Mint Museum and the New Orleans Mint Museum. We tried to bring our policies and procedures in line with standard AAM practices, so that if and when the decision came to pursue accreditation, the museum would have all of its homework done.
During the last summer I was at the ANA, one of the interns and I spent two months outlining the entire six-year, step-by-step process it would take for the ANA Money Museum to become accredited by the AAM. In researching this worthy goal, we found something that surprised me and continues to baffle me to this day.
We learned AAM accreditation would never be possible with an organizational structure that allows a board of governors to be over the museum, rather than the museum over the board of governors. Among many other problems, as the ANA’s structure now stands, the museum collection can be listed on the association’s balance sheet as an asset. This would basically never happen in an AAM-accredited museum. The problem is that this allows museum assets to be sold, with the proceeds going, not back into the collection, but into nonmuseum salaries, building projects or other expenses unrelated to the museum. This violates the very principles upon which a museum is based. To become accredited, the museum must be the entity in control, not an ancillary department at the beck and whim of bi-yearly electors.
This is hardly radical thinking. Think of the Smithsonian Institution and its popular magazine as an analogy to the ANA Money Museum and The Numismatist magazine. The Smithsonian complex of multiple museums is the dog in the show, not the board of directors, not an arbitration committee, not a dealer star system, not many of the things in which the ANA finds itself embroiled.
In an AAM model, most departments at the ANA that are now separate would be placed under the museum. Without doubt, the education functions of the ANA should already be under the museum, not a separate department. The same is true of the gift shop, the magazine and membership. Basically only the convention department should be a separate entity. The library should be co-equal to the museum as a repository of objects in a collection.
Also under this arrangement, the board of governors would include a mix of individuals from academia and other nonprofit organizations rather than constantly being made up of coin dealers with vested interests and conflicting values to a museum. Most ANA Board members now come from a for-profit world, to try and run a nonprofit organization where the bottom line is not always the bottom line. They bring their “for-profit, make money” mind-set into a not-for-profit educational institution. It is like trying to run a school with a bunch of businessmen as educators. “Charge that kid admission.” “What will our profits be in the fourth quarter?”
The ANA’s nonprofit status has been threatened on more than one occasion by do-gooders and schemers without adequate background or understanding of what it means to be nonprofit beyond not making money. Having a wider range of board members besides just dealers would not only help with the ANA’s operation, it would help with its image as well.
In the years since Christopher Cipoletti, former executive director, was shown the door, various organizational planks of his empire have been slowly razed from the ANA’s operating structure. I have been waiting for the real changes that would signal actual difference. Yet, many of the most glaring fault-lines introduced during his reign of excess still remain, with several Cipoletti appointees yet in control of major gateways within headquarters. Until the ANA actually staffs its library and museum with degreed, master’s level professionals, all claims the organization is moving forward are proven false. Shuffling staff between offices and what should be degreed positions may help the bottom line, but it does nothing to advance the museum or library in the eyes of any accrediting organization.
The ANA coin collection is more than the sum total of all of its individual coins. The theft of some of those items does not destroy the unity nor the sanctity of the collection, nor does it invalidate the very idea of a numismatic museum. What it does validate is that people hire professionals for a reason. Including professional dog trainers. ■
Lawrence J. Lee is a private numismatic curator and museum consultant. He was employed as curator of the ANA’s Money Museum from August 2001 until October 2003. Prior to his work at ANA, he was curator of the Byron Reed Collection at the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Neb. He holds a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and history, a master’s degree in adult education and museum studies, and a doctorate in human sciences. His doctoral dissertation was a qualitative case study of numismatic education in the United States.