US Coins

Smithsonian Great Americans medal awarded to cellist Yo-Yo Ma

Great Americans medal recipient Yo-Yo Ma is endowed with his medal while receiving congratulatory remarks from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

World-renowned professional cellist Yo-Yo Ma received the Smithsonian Institution’s Great Americans medal during special ceremonies held May 9 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Ma was recognized “for his extraordinary impact as a musician and cultural ambassador.”

The presentation, with a special performance by Ma, was part of the Great Americans Medal Awards Program, the museum’s signature honor established in 2016.

Ma is the ninth honoree and the second musician to receive the award.

Supported by philanthropist and Smithsonian Regent Emeritus David M. Rubenstein, the medal ceremony included a conversation between Rubenstein and Ma, preceded by a special performance featuring the cellist alongside the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society’s Artistic Director Kenneth Slowik and cellists Kamila Dotta, Francesca McNeeley and Nathaniel Taylor on the museum’s 1701 “Servais” Stradivarius, 1688 “Marylebone” Stradivarius and 1677 “Herbert” Amati violoncellos, a Schubert era fortepiano and an 1899 Steinway.

The evening’s performance represented a multi-sensory telling of American history commemorating an intersection of the music enjoyed and played by President Thomas Jefferson and the family of Frederick Douglass, including his violinist grandson, Joseph Henry Douglass; composers ranging from J.S. Bach and J. Raff to Henry Thacker Burleigh and Scott Joplin; and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Great Americans medal

The Great Americans medal presented to Ma was made possible by museum board member and professional numismatist Jeff Garrett from Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries in Lexington, Kentucky.

Garrett provided the funding for the medal’s production at the private Medalcraft Mint in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Garrett located the medallic artist for the medal and assisted in the design process.

The medal was designed and sculpted by Welsh artist, engraver and graphic designer Michael Guilfoyle, an international designer of coins and medals.

The medal, weighing 1.85 ounces of .999 fine gold, measures 38.1 millimeters in diameter.

The medal’s obverse illustrates an American eagle with wings outstretched while landing, rays of the sun and 50 five-pointed stars behind, with an olive branch in the eagle’s right talons and three arrows in left, with GREAT AMERICANS and NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY separated by clusters of three oak leaves.

The reverse side honors one of the museum’s most important treasures, the Star-Spangled Banner, with the flag flanked by olive branches, the Smithsonian’s mission inscribed around FOR THE INCREASE AND DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE. PRESENTED TO appears in the exergue below, with space for engraving the name of the medal’s recipient, with a single five-pointed star  along the bottom border at the 6 o’clock position.

The medal designs were inspired by the gold $20 double eagle coins in the museum’s National Numismatic Collection, which were designed by famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

From an early age

Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris, where he began studying the cello at age 4 with his father. When Ma was 7, he moved with his family to New York City, where he continued his cello studies before pursing a liberal arts education.

Ma has performed for nine American presidents, most recently at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. His discography of more than 120 albums (including 19 Grammy Award winners) ranges from iconic renditions of the Western classical canon to recordings that defy categorization.

Among Ma’s numerous awards are the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), Kennedy Center Honors (2011), the Polar Music Prize (2012) and the Birgit Nilsson Prize (2022).

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