by Adam Crum
Several years in the making, the new exhibition of U.S. coins and currency titled, “Stories on Money”, was unveiled June 10, 2009 at the recently renovated Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Located on the first floor of the museum, the exhibition has a fresh new look dedicated fully to numismatics in American history.
“Stories on Money” displays a vast array of items from the National Numismatic Collection and walks you through time, from Colonial Americana…the California Gold Rush…the Great Depression…and finally, to modern America – all pivotal events in American numismatics. As I toured the exhibit on the day before its grand opening, my thoughts quickly began to compare the changes in coin designs over time, and I couldn’t help but recognize the visible changes in attitudes and philosophy of the American people and the government in charge of making these changes.
It’s interesting to think about the time when George Washington was shown a proposed pattern of early coinage depicting himself on the obverse, similar to the coinage of England portraying the King, and he ordered it destroyed. Washington instead preferred and advocated symbols of liberty and other important ideals supporting those of the peoples wishes and dreams. Those ideals are depicted on these early coins now displayed at the Smithsonian for all to enjoy. Rightly or wrongly, the designs of coins of the mid- to late-20th century changed dramatically from our founding fathers’ wishes and began to immortalize individuals rather than the ideals of a nation.
These changes in American currency are a reflection and a record of our history. “This display illuminates history in fresh and unexpected ways and will allow visitors to think of how money tells stories about different historical periods,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum.
Although each individual who visits the exhibit will be touched in their own way, I have my own personal favorites. For me the love of coins extends from my interest in financial history. I look at coins and think about the times in which they were made and imagine the hopes and dreams of those living at the time. I believe it is important to understand our nation’s financial history to fully appreciate our current state of economic affairs and effectively predict the future.
Entering the exhibit, it excites me to look at the early colonial coins and paper currency and ponder the hardships of those living in this exciting, but difficult era, and it is amazing to think that these objects symbolize the birth of a sovereign nation soon to be known as “America.” Just two steps over, I can then see a case full of classics from the California Gold Rush era and am fascinated by the unique coin designs such as the Baldwin $10 Horseman. Examining the beauty of the objects, I find my mind drifting to the incredible hardship yet extremely exciting times that the California gold rush thrust onto the hopes and dreams of the entire world.
Continuing through the exhibit I come to the case sure to garner the most attention: the display housing “America’s Legendary Coins.” Included among these legendary rarities are all three types of the 1804 silver dollar…both extant gold 1877 $50 Half Unions…two versions of the 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 Saint-Gaudens…a 1933 $20 Saint-Gaudens…and finally, the hero of the entire collection, the unique 1849 Proof $20 gold Type I Double Eagle, described in the exhibit simply as follows: “Many consider this the most historically significant U.S. coin because it is the very first twenty-dollar gold coin…ever made.” To be sure, the 1849 $20 gold Double Eagle is widely considered to be the single most valuable coin in existence.
Lastly, I see the exhibit case which portrays the many images of “Lady Liberty,” from the early coins of the Roman Empire, all the way through to the coins of today, dramatically showing how early coinage continues to play a key role in thoughts and designs of coins and currency, even in modern times.
At the end of the night I sat and thought about my day (and night) at the museum. From our private tour of the back room vault, home to 1.6 million numismatic related items, to the grand opening event that evening, I found myself a little overwhelmed by the whole experience.
I cannot begin to express what an honor it has been to have had the privilege of being involved in the efforts to get this historical and wonderful collection back on display for the public to enjoy. The Smithsonian’s “Stories on Money” exhibition explores the importance of our country’s sovereignty, heritage and financial independence. The beauty of the coins is obvious, but the history witnessed by these little objects is what excites me the most.
I want thank Mark Salzberg, President of NGC, for sharing in Monaco’s vision and joining our efforts in supporting the collection and bringing this new Smithsonian exhibit to life. But keeping this exhibit in public view is a responsibility which falls on all numismatists. In these very difficult financial times, it will take sincere efforts from all of us to see that these wonderful items are never locked away in some vault somewhere.
I hope this important event challenges industry leaders to continue our educational efforts to share the real value of collecting coins, not just as an asset, but also to see the value in educating people on the “history of money” and its important role in a developed society.
For more information on the Smithsonian’s “Stories on Money” exhibit and to view many of the coins of the National Numismatic Collection on-line, log on to: http://www.americanhistory.si.edu