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Archive for the ‘Numismatic Museums’ Category

IN March 2006 President of the Closter New Jersey Belskie Museum of Art and Science, Myron J. Lewis, named me a curator of the museum. The museum’s board approved that appointment April 13, 2006. The official title was Curator Numismatics Art. That was intended to cover all medallic and related items the museum had in their collections.

Abram Belskie

Abram Belskie at work.

I had learned of the museum four years earlier from the National Sculpture Society and wrote to museum about Abram Belskie as a medallist. I mentioned I had known the artist, had visited him in his studio several times and was very familiar with his medallic work since I had cataloged his medals for Medallic Art Company which had produced most all of his medallic creations.

This led to a telephone call from Mike Lewis and we exchanged phone conversations for four months. We discussed Belskie’s work and I learned how the museum came to be established (revealed below). But I guess I proved to Mike’s satisfaction I really knew about Belskie’s medallic creations. In August 2002 I requested permission to come to Closter to examine and take notes on the medals in the museum’s collection.

Mike granted approval and set an appointment for Friday, August 30, 2002. I came prepared with wife Shirley to assist, a list of Belskie’s known works and paraphernalia for taking notes including magnifying glasses for examining minute detail and scales to weight silver specimens.

We did examine all the medals and started on the plaster models but it took all day Friday. We came prepared, as was required, for a second day. We stayed at a nearby motel and worked the Saturday examining the plaster models in the museum’s basement storeroom.

I measured image size of plaster models and dictated details as Shirley recorded a description lengthy enough to identify the medal made from each model. That also took the full day.

Back in Connecticut I wrote a 51-page catalog of Belskie’s medals and sent that to Mike Lewis. Not only did it include a list of all medals and models with complete details but a bibliography of all published references mentioning these I could find, plus a glossary on the medallic terms used in cataloging.

My phone conversations with Mike Lewis continued. That led to my 2006 curatorial appointment. Since then I have suggested two other medallic estates which the museum should acquire. New Jersey sculptor Roger Brown had died and the family wanted to know what to do with his trove of tools, medals, and models. The other was a much larger archive of an artist who was still alive (but resided outside the state of New Jersey).

Mike Lewis followed up for both of those collections, visiting each in turn. Unfortunately he became ill and neither resulted in a donation to the museum.

Exhibitions are the paramount purpose of this museum. Exhibitions of art of every kind are shown throughout the year. Obviously an exhibition of Belskie’s medallic work was called for. so an exhibit was planned for Fall 2009. To make this exhibit even more meaningful, the American medalists who had exhibited at the international symposium of F.I.D.E.M. (the International Federation of Medallic Artists) that year leant their medallic works to show as well.

Grants for a publication was obtained from the Bergen County  Department of Parks, Division of Cultural & Historical Affairs, Capitol One bank and the Van Pelt Foundation.  I wrote a 12-page brochure on Abram Belskie Numismatics: The Art of Coins and Medals. It illustrated some of his work, contained a very brief biography, told how he prepared his models, a glossary, and a timeline on the artist. The two-month exhibit was on view from September 13 to November 15, 2009.

Marcel Jovine

Marcel Jovine at work in his studio.

Closter New Jersey was also the home of another famous modern sculptor, Marcel Jovine, who lived only two blocks from the museum. He, too, became, like Aram Belskie, a medallist late in life. But Jovine created coin models that became United States coins of commemorative interest, in addition to highly artistic medals.

Jovine died January 2003. His two daughters have kept his Closter home intact, where his models are stored. In the Fall of 2008 the Jovine daughters hired me to catalog their father’s medallic works – medals, coins and models.

This required more than just a written description. We had to build new shelving to store plaster models – photography every item – plus a full written description. I hired a photographer who with a helper photographed all items in three day’s time. I delivered that illustrated catalog early in 2009.

For years I had been in touch with the family of sculptor Joseph DiLorenzo. A third generation sculptor, he lived and worked nearby in Alpine New Jersey, less than three miles from the Belskie Museum.

Here then were three of America’s top metallic sculptors, all neighbors! I came to learn they were all friends of each other, often traded tips, encouragement, and even commissions! among each other.  If one was too busy, he would pass off a job to his close friend. For a large commission, like a series of medals, two would often do half the design and models.

I’m certain if one had  rush job and was short of plaster …  or clay … he could call on his fellow sculptor for a cup … or bucket full, instead of having to travel the New York City for a fresh supply. Friends would do that.

DiLorenzo died December 2001. His widow died two years later. Thus I was in contact with his three children. DiLorenzo was the most productive of all, creating just under 400 medals over a 32-year career.

I learned he had destroyed his plaster models before he retired to Florida in 1988, but he had a large collection of medals. Before he died he even invited me to Florida to come catalog his medals there. “I have a closet full,” he relaed.

In 2009 son Michael DiLorenzo informed me they have cleared out their parents home in Florida. I stated that if he could bring the medals and related items to me I would catalog them. On January 2, 2010 he delivered to me the medals, a few plaster casts and sketches.

This began a two-year period of cataloging, refurbishing, and some photographing of the family collection. In addition to the medals DiLorenzo had created there were nearly 150 study medals in the collection  by other artists.

The wheels were turning in my mind. As a curator I can imagine an exhibit  I would like see occurr. The theme would be The Three Closter Medallists –Belskie, DiLorenzo and Jovine.

Perhaps, I thought, the families would want to donate those medallic items to the Belskie Museum – for the Jovine and DiLorenzo items to join those of Belskie already ensconced.  Meanwhile I would persuade the museum officials to put such an exhibit in their upcoming exhibit schedule.

Early in the year 2014 would be ideal. You see, in 1964 DiLorenzo and Jovine created the Closter New Jersey Tercentennial Medal. It only had one side but designed and modelled by the two sculptors. Year 2014 would be the 350th anniversary of the town. I see a new medal, perhaps incorporating their 1964 design, motif, or even that as one side of a new anniversary medal!

We must Plan Ahead. It would benefit the exhibit. And benefit the town!

How the Belskie Museum came into existence is interesting. There was a group of local citizens who had breakfast every morning at a favorite eatery. Belskie was one of those participants. Others were prominent businessmen, some were members of the local Lion’s Club.

When Belskie died November 1988, the Breakfast Group learned his house containing his studio and all its contents were soon up for sale. Belskie’s two sons were not interested in preserving the studio or contents containing much of their father’s work. It would go to whoever purchased the house.

The Breakfast Group generated the idea “Let’s build a museum and put all Belskie’s art work in it.”  It could be a project of the local Lion’s Club. The sons were receptive to donating the entire contents of he studio.

The seed of an idea grew. Construction company members of the Lion’s Club began plans. The City of Closter had land adjacent to their library that would be ideal. If they built it would the City accept it?

Good things sometimes happen. Lion’s Club members pitched in, volunteering help, often physical labor. The museum got built before the Belskie house was sold.

Mike told me they took truckload after truckload out of that basement studio and hauled it to the new museum building. The museum is owned by the City, largely due to the local Lion’s Club. It was named after Abram Belskie, who used to sit with many of his neighbors for breakfast on frequent mornings.

The museum is operated entirely with volunteer help. On my infrequent visits to the museum, I am enthralled by the camaraderie, enthusiasm, dedication, devotion and interest of those volunteers. That’s community spirit!

For more information visit the Belskie Museum web site.

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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.

Newly revamped exhibition room of the Philadelphia Mint opened July 3.

Newly revamped exhibition room of the Philadelphia Mint opened July 3.

Coining press of 1702 on view at new exhibition at the Philadelphia Mint.

Coining press of 1702 on view at new exhibition at the Philadelphia Mint.

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.

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