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The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 9, March 1, 2009, Article 21

MORE ON THE DEBATE FOR AND AGAINST NUMISMATIC MUSEUMS

Continuing the discussion on the merits of numismatic museums, Douglas Mudd writes:
As a correction to Alan Weinberg's comments on the Lilly collection, the exhibition was not taken down because of questions about the authenticity of its objects - it was taken down because the National Museum of American History, in its wisdom, decided that it would rather have a hole in the floor where the exhibit was located - so that the public could look down on the Star-Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry.

The staff of the National Numismatic Collection and many collectors who were aware of the situation opposed the takedown (as did scholars concerned about flag etiquette), but to no avail - the then-management of the museum was not interested in numismatics. There are over 6,000 gold items in the Lilly collection including approximately 50 of the ingots Alan mentions. The vast majority of the collection is of unquestioned authenticity. Of the four ingots that have been scientifically examined by knowledgeable and unbiased experts (Bob Evans and Fred Holabird), two were found to be fakes. This is the area where many previously questioned pieces have been vindicated by recent underwater archaeology.

On the subject of museums containing fakes - there is no better place for them. They can then form a benchmark with which to compare and check other pieces for authenticity instead of being passed from unsuspecting collector to another or, worse, from collectors or dealers who do know that they are fakes. At the least the pieces are out of the market.

Of course, Alan's initial point is unfortunately quite valid, especially in the U.S. Without proper staffing and support, public museums cannot do what they have a responsibility to do - make their collections available to the public through exhibitions and publications (books, the web, etc.) or to trusted researchers for study.

It is a terrible problem, and one which will not be solved easily. As a museum professional I wish I could do more to make it happen - I have done my best - as have my colleagues - at the Smithsonian as well as at the ANA.

Unfortunately, it is tough when staffing continues to drop - at the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection from eleven positions in 1990 to two in 2004 when I left. The British Museum and British numismatic collections in general seem to have had the best record of maintaining numismatic collections and providing for access and publication - most notably the various British Museum catalogs, which are essential within their research areas.




Wayne Homren, Editor

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