September 8th, 2009

My Two Cents Worth: A Light in the Nation’s Attic

It’s nice to have the National Numismatic Collection—or at least an important part of it—on display again at the Smithsonian Institution.

Four years have passed since the Smithsonian closed the long-running “History of Coins and Medals” exhibit in 2005 and put the collection in mothballs—and that’s far too long for such a national treasure to be locked away where people can’t see and enjoy it.

I’m pleased that a new exhibit—said to be better than the old one—is now showcasing highlights from the collection.

Still, I can’t forget the frustration I felt when Smithsonian higher-ups announced their intention to pull the

coins from public view and then went on to stash them—unceremoniously and unapologetically—in the deep recesses of the institution known as “The Nation’s Attic.”

Back then, we were told the collection was being shelved as part of a long-term reorganization and “revitalization.” The action was necessary, officials explained, because major renovations were planned at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where the collection was housed. Indeed, that whole museum was shut down.

The renovations, it turned out, didn’t really center on the numismatic collection. Rather, Smithsonian bigwigs had formulated plans for a major new display honoring “The Star-Spangled Banner” linked to the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key’s famous poem.

The new display, it seemed, would require opening up a three-story area, including space previously used for the numismatic exhibit.

I’d never demean a display devoted to Old Glory. Saluting the Stars and Stripes is a privilege, and I’m sure the Smithsonian’s tribute will be well received by everyone who sees it.

Nonetheless, I resented the matter-of-fact, almost imperious way the Smithsonian broke the news that the national coin collection soon would be sent to the sidelines for nearly half a decade.

“Surely,” I wrote at the time, “museum officials could have come up with a

way of keeping the collection—or at least a major part of it—open to the public while the physical changes were under way.”

Significantly, the collection’s longtime curator, Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, had died in 2001 and wasn’t around to battle the bureaucracy three years later. Mrs. Stefanelli fiercely resisted earlier attempts to limit the size, scope and exposure of the collection and would have fought tooth-and-nail to block—or at least temper—this one. But following her death, the reins passed to more compliant hands.

Clearly, the people who closed the exhibit had little sensitivity to how deeply its loss—for such a lengthy period—would be felt by many Americans in and out of the hobby. Nor did they anticipate the extent and intensity of the outcry that greeted their decision.

At first, there was real concern that Smithsonian officials might never put the coins back on public display in anything resembling the previous form. This fear was fed by their stated intentions.

Instead of a centralized exhibit area devoted exclusively to coins and related items, they said they envisioned more sweeping thematic displays in which numismatic items would be used to help tell larger stories. Thus, an exhibit on the American Revolution might incorporate Continental currency to show how the Founding Fathers financed the war.

“This approach,” I wrote back in 2004, “would be fine as a supplement to a central numismatic display, but not as a replacement. By itself, without a core numismatic exhibit, it would scatter the components and minimize the impact of what is, after all, the finest such collection in the United States.”

Thankfully, Smithsonian officials reconsidered such plans. In fact, they redrew much of their original blueprint—influenced, I suspect, by the storm of angry protest that erupted when their intentions came to light. I’m sure they were swayed, as well, by the strong financial support they got from hobby sources to help ensure that key elements of the collection would be returned to public view.

During the four-year gap, they even opened a small coin display in a building called the Smithsonian Castle and set up modest displays at major coin shows.

However it came about, the new display at the Museum of American History—“Stories of Money”—is most welcome.

Let’s hope it reflects a new and more enlightened attitude, as well, by the people overseeing The Nation’s Attic.?

2009 . Issues . My Two Cents . September