In my first week as an intern, I was thrust into one of the most exciting events at a museum; an exhibition opening! Stories on Money showcases coins, paper money, and other units of currency from the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection. The collection itself comprises over 1.5 million objects, only a few of which are on display on the first floor of the museum’s east wing. Stories on Money highlights how money teaches history lessons related to a larger picture and also illustrates the beauty of American coinage, past and present.
Although I came to the project after it had been underway for more than one year, I immediately felt drawn to the exhibition and did my part to ensure a successful opening. I helped set up the interactive touch-screen labels, which I think are a really nice addition to the exhibition space. Since there are so many small items in the cases, the design team felt that having individual labels for every coin would be distracting and cramped. The touch-screen labels add a level of interaction with the currency that a museum patron normally couldn’t experience, such as zooming in on the object and seeing both sides of the coin or paper currency.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from working on Stories on Money was the incredible amount of collaboration—internal and external—that is necessary to create an exhibition. As a newcomer to the museum world (my previous experience limited largely to being a visitor) I don’t think I ever took the time to really think about how an exhibit actually makes it onto the floor of a museum. After seeing the pieces of Stories on Money come together through careful planning and installation, I now find myself looking at other exhibitions in a different way, paying attention to more than just the content. Now I look deeper by trying to understand how layouts were designed and to determine the reasoning behind the smallest details, building on lessons I learned from participating in an exhibition opening for the first time.
I also felt awed by the sheer fact that I was working with such important (and expensive!) pieces of American history. Some of the coins in Stories on Money are legends in the numismatic world, such as the one-of-a-kind 1849 pattern for the proposed $20 dollar gold coins, or double eagles. Sometimes being in a place like the Smithsonian feels more like a vacation than work because of the opportunity to be surrounded by objects that have been real movers and shakers in American history. It’s a real privilege to be a part of this.
Matt Small is an intern in the Numismatic Department, part of the Division of Information Technology & Communications, at the National Museum of American History.