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U.S. Numismatic Museums Make Varied Plans

This originally appeared in Numismatic News as a viewpoint.

What interesting news from two major U.S. museums. The American Numismatic Association launches a plan to expand and go bi-costal while the American Numismatic Society’s goal is to crawl under a rock.

The American Numismatic Association recently announced a 40 million dollar expansion program and plans for public museum satellite locations in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, Calif. Many of you may know that the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution is generally not on public view, with a few select items on display integrated with other exhibits at any one time. A current exception is the notable rarities that are featured at an ongoing exhibit at the Castle building. The ANA’s selection of the San Francisco venue at the old mint is a wonderful location, as one of the few remaining buildings to have survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. This historic structure should be a great tourist draw, and a secure location. Central Washington, D.C., sees influxes of tourists and school groups by the busload. The Spy museum, which is one of the few museums that charge admission in the DC area, is a huge success. There are even some old bank building sites currently available.

This move for the ANA to take coin collecting to the public on a pro-active scale is commendable. Along with it comes a sizeable fundraising campaign proposal. But the return in exposure to the public could be enormous.

On the other hand, the American Numismatic Society in New York City, nearing its 150th anniversary, is adopting a long-range plan that is tantamount to cold storage. About three years ago, the ANS moved from its 1906 museum building located at 155th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights to a former bank building located downtown at the corner of Fulton and William streets, near the financial district and South Street Seaport. The reason put forward for the move at that time was that the out-of- town membership felt the uptown location was difficult and unsafe to visit.

So, with the previous move pending, the ANS effectively closed for a year, to renovate the new building, pack, move and unpack. Now a library and collection is presented over three floors at their Fulton Street Building, with a main floor set up for public meetings and an additional floor of storage in the six-story building. They do not even have a certificate of occupancy for the first floor of the building - a building code technical point for public spaces. I really do not think that such a facility has welcomed visitors even with nearby access to nearly 10 subway lines. The street scene is somewhat disturbing, too, with about three years of further subway station construction to further deter visitors.

To open any sort of public museum exhibition at the Fulton Street location is said to cost some seven million dollars more. (Yes, the ANS has a continuing four-year exhibition relationship with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; however, that building is very inconvenient to visit - can you say excessive homeland security checks?). So, what is the ANS about to do? Sell the newly acquired Fulton Street property, and accept a 20-year lease and move into part of the 11th floor of a recent factory conversion on the far west side of Manhattan (intersection of Varick and Canal Street - 1 Hudson Square, aka 75 Varick St.). The plan is to have the library on closed shelves, and very limited access to the collection material. Therefore, the collection will for all intents and purposes be in storage for 20 years!

What really could be behind this? Yes, the driving motivation for the governing body is that the investment of monies from the sale of the Fulton Street building and the sale of the orders and decorations collection will do well during that time (we all know that past performance is no guarantee of future results – which was announced as 18% per annum in the last 10 years).

But what will happen to the staff positions (which in many cases are endowed)? How will numismatics be served better? How will this non-access grow membership? (Some officers of the ANS have even gone on record saying that members are expensive to service!) The Life Membership dues were recently raised to a staggering $7,000! Talk about causing feelings of disenfranchisement!

The continuing story of two numismatic museums with two very different directions.

George ?uhaj