word “curate” has multiple meanings in the museum context — to care
for, to preserve and keep, and to select for collection and display.
Among these definitions, one of the most challenging — but also
rewarding — aspects of curatorial work is choosing which objects to
display in the museum. Every object has a story behind it and the
potential to inspire visitors to think about history.
the curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian’s
National Museum of American History, I recently had the privilege of
curating “The Value of Money” exhibition for the new Gallery of
Numismatics (which officially opened July 15). My focus throughout
the process was on emphasizing the power of using monetary objects to
explore history. I sought to pair objects from different places and
periods in order to transcend geographic and chronological boundaries
and focus on the history behind the objects and their individual and
shared meanings. Thus the exhibition is organized thematically, rather
than chronologically or by object type. The five sections of the
exhibition explore the origins of money, new monetary technologies,
the political and cultural messages money conveys, numismatic art and
design, and the practice of collecting money. Each theme teaches
visitors a different approach to examining monetary objects, including
form, political and social contexts, design, and journey from
production to museum or private collection.
I first began working with the National Numismatic Collection and selecting objects for the gallery, I was
astonished by the diversity and richness of the collection. With
objects representing every continent that span more than three
millennia, it felt as though the whole world is inside the storage
vault. Every cabinet and box I opened unveiled new possibilities for
the gallery. As I moved between them, I traveled from ancient Egypt to
medieval Europe and then to modern Japan and beyond. I was equally
delighted by the specimens of widely circulating currencies, such the
silver Spanish pieces of eight, and the extraordinary rarities, such
as the 1849 double eagle, the 1825 Constantine ruble, the 1787 Brasher
half doubloon, and $100,000 gold certificate from 1934.
American coins and notes in the collection, many of which were
transferred to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Mint and the U.S.
Treasury, provided abundant exciting material to convey American
history. The international private collections donated by Paul A.
Straub, Josiah K. Lilly Jr., Willis H. du Pont, and The Chase
Manhattan Bank (to name just a few) enabled me to select a wide
variety of monetary objects from communities and cultures around the
world. When displayed and analyzed together, these objects enable
visitors to explore the connections between American history and
global histories of exchange, cultural interaction and expression,
political change, and innovation.
the process of making object selections, I invited input from seasoned
numismatists, curatorial colleagues, and historians of a wide range of
specialisms. Their suggestions helped to inform my selections. I
sought to balance the American with the international, the new with
the old, and the common with the very rare, all with the aim of
engaging different audiences, including coin and paper experts,
historians and anthropologists, and visitors of all ages from the U.S.
and abroad. One object that already seems to be capturing the
imagination of experts and novices alike is a 168.5-pound stone ring
used as money on the Pacific Island of Yap in the Federated States of
Micronesia. It challenges many people’s assumptions about the form of
money, materials used to make monetary objects, and their ability to
circulate and move with transactions.
the stone ring is the most imposing object inside the gallery, it is
dwarfed by the one and a half ton vault door that serves as the
gallery’s entrance. This door is intended to simulate the experience
of entering the collection’s vault. Yet there is another design
feature that also simulates the experience of doing curatorial work:
32 discovery drawers. These drawers mimic the trays inside the
collection’s storage cabinets, each of which holds potential for new discoveries.
that the new gallery is open to the public, I will regularly select
new objects from the collection’s vault to include in “The Value of Money.” With such a powerful and
expansive collection, the possibilities are endless.
Ellen R. Feingold is curator of the National Numismatic Collection,
the Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
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