MY original conversations with Ross Hansen, prior to coming aboard for him, touched on discussions of a medallic museum.
Previous owners of medal making firms had similar ideas. Bill Louth wanted such a medal museum in Danbury Connecticut but could not convince Don Schwartz to build it after he sold the firm to Don. The Medallic Art plant included a 22-acre track of land with ample room for such a separate building. Trouble was, the 1976 American Bicentennial came along, everyone was so busy, no one had time to even think about a museum. After the Bicentennial was over, medal business declined to a previous level, there was no further discussion of a medal museum.
Joseph Segal had the same idea at Franklin Mint. After he built a new plant at Franklin Center, he erected a separate one story building over a basement vault. What the Franklin Mint Museum displayed became a showcase for the other products the firm marketed. So what started out as a medal museum slowly evolved into displays of modern manufactured collectibles gradually replacing medals the firm was famous for creating originally.
I spent two weeks with Rob Vugteveen, Medallic Art Project Manager, in August 2010. He had come East to meet with me for a week, and spend the second week at the Boston national convention of the American Numismatic Association where we shared a booth in the bourse room of the convention.
We discussed so many aspects of a medallic museum during those two weeks. We drove north to Stockbridge to Chesterwood, the studio of Daniel Chester French, now a National Historic Trust. We photographed the original plaster model of the “French Head” the obverse model of the Catskill Aqueduct Medal that had been adopted as the company’s trademark by a previous president of the firm, Clyde C. Trees.
We also traveled south to New York City where we drove to each of the locations in the city (often now a high-rise building or a parking lot) which had been the home of the firm in the early years, right up to 1972 when the firm moved out of the city to Danbury.
We also visited the American Numismatic Society, the largest numismatic museum on the East Coast. Here Rob was taken into the vault where he saw how more than a million numismatic items were sorted and stored. He also saw the extensive library – largest numismatic library in the world – and displays currently on view.
Understandably he came away from these excursions with ideas how to build the medallic museum he had been charged with creating from the ground up. Concerns for such numismatic museums include the obvious such as security and protecting the specimens in such a collection. Another concern is the small size of the artifacts to be displayed.
Coins and medals are meant to be viewed close up, inches from a viewer’s eyes. Also numismatic specimens generally lack color, struck in a monochrome metal. This presents a challenge to create attractive displays, let alone adding pizzazz to such exhibits.
Other approaches to numismatic display are available.The Philadelphia Mint has recently, last July 3rd, opened the spectators tour gallery and exhibit rooms for public viewing after an 18-month period.
This rare form of a numismatic museum shows how coins and medals are made. The galley walkway, 40 feet about the production floor, allows the public to view from above the coining presses in operation and, in a separated room, see how medals and commemorative coins are struck.
This building – and that public gallery viewing area – is a tribute to one woman, Eva Adams, who was Director of the Mint 1961-1969. She oversaw Congressional fundraising, design and construction of this mint building during her administration.
She insisted that public gallery – eyes in the sky – be part of the building’s architectural design. It was dedicated August 1969.
It should be noted Eva Adams was also a director of Medallic Art Company, albeit for only a brief time. Bill Louth named her a director following her 1969 departure from the Mint. She resigned the following year to run for office in the American Numismatic Association. She felt it would have been a conflict of interest to serve on the ANA board while MACO was making all the association’s medals. Of course, she won election twice, serving on the ANA board for four years.
The Philadelphia Mint’s revamped gallery and exhibition rooms were professionally prepared by Quarterfoil, a museum exhibition specialty firm of Laurel Maryland at a cost of $3.9 million.
Days after it opened a writer for E-Sylum, Ben Gastfriend, visited the Mint and the new public areas; he reported the following:
I visited the Philadelphia Mint on Saturday. After passing through the security checkpoint, the self-guided tour began at the bottom of an escalator, with a display of both present and historic gold coins, bullion coins, and commemoratives.
After ascending two escalators, and walking down a long corridor, I reached the famous hallway overlooking the production floor. It was immediately clear that this area had been revamped.
Colorful placards positioned along the hallway between the large windows showed the various stages of the coin-production process: Art, Die Making, Blanking,Annealing & Upsetting, Striking, Inspecting, and Bagging.
Though there was not much activity on the production floor because it was the weekend, the exhibit material interspersed throughout the tour made up for it.
In the center of the hallway was a giant spool of coining metal that was partially unrolled and formed into a railing of sorts. Mounted on the walls were master hubs (engraved and blank), obverse and reverse dies (examples that had and had not been struck), collars (with and without reeding), blanks, planchets, and finished coins.
All these materials were mounted in a way that encouraged visitors to touch them and observe closely. The electronic touch-screens (all but one were operational) allowed visitors to explore the production floor in detail.
After the circulating coin exhibit came the exhibit on the production of medals and commemorative coins. As I gazed into the dark medal-production room, a cart of about 500 3-inch medals with a handwritten sign “annealed and ready for a second strike” caught my eye. There was also a nice display of Indian Peace Medals and Presidential Medals.
Back down one escalator into an area labeled the Mezzanine was a selection of artifacts, historic coins, medals, hobo nickels, old coining presses, iron gates from the 1901 Philadelphia Mint, and Peter, the stuffed U.S. Mint eagle. …
The designers of the new tour did a good job. It is much better than the former; the process is presented in an intuitive and hands-on fashion, and the number, scope, and presentation of artifacts has been improved.
That description entices readers to want to take the Mint tour as soon as possible – myself included.
I detect from that description, however, that the entire tour and exhibits are aimed at the general public, not necessarily the sophisticated numismatist, who is familiar with much of the Mint’s activity.
It should be noted, a public museum must meet the needs of all levels of viewers. Teach a little. Tell a lot. To all!
I am impressed the Mint placed hubs and dies out for the public to touch. That’s good. I hope the viewer becomes aware of the vast amount of effort and talent that goes into making each design and die. For coins, I hope it discourages counterfeiting. It should be obvious that so much preparation and effort is required to strike a single coin.
What ideas come to mind for a medallic museum from the Mint’s new showcase?
- Show activity actually happening. Put a coining press and a medal press in the museum operating during all hours the museum is open.
- Put a Janvier machine on display actually cutting a die.
- Put a designer at a drawing board and a hand engraver actually cutting a die at his work bench; both on view at all times.
- Build exhibits of numismatic items that can be viewed close up. I like to view obverse and reverse next to each other, with ample description.
- Encourage education, with symposiums, classroom lectures, visiting speakers.
- Build a library and underwrite scholarship.
- Publish, publish, publish. In every format, print and electronic. Books, pamphlets, posters, postcards, more.
- Gift Shop. Oh Blessed Art Thou Gift Shop! Ideally museum viewers would be buyers of what they see struck on those presses, copies of artist drawings, medals struck from dies by those hand engravers. Plus all the published works and products of the field. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a two-story gift shop for an important reason – it generates massive amounts of revenue. So could a medallic museum gift shop.