1.5 ton vault door to greet visitors in the new Gallery of Numismatics

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection and The Value of MoneyShe explains why visitors will enter the gallery through an authentic vault door and what they will find behind it.

When The Value of Money exhibition opens in the new Gallery of Numismatics on July 1, 2015, visitors will enter through a huge, shiny vault door—the type you see in banks and other rooms intended for the safekeeping of valuable objects. Although it is robust and imposing, the door is not operational and will not help to keep the objects on display safe. So why did we put it in place?

Computer generated image of a round metal door with many mechanical inner-workings

The vault door is intended to simulate the experience of entering the National Numismatic Collection's storage vault, which has an operating vault door of its own to safeguard the collection. Behind that vault door, we store 1.6 million objects from around the world that span more than three thousand years of human history. When visitors look through the gallery's vault door, we hope that they will feel as though they are looking into the collection’s vault—a space that secures one of the Smithsonian's most valued collections.

Once inside the gallery, visitors will not only see rare, historic, and beautiful objects, but also learn why monetary objects are valuable sources for exploring history. The Value of Money will link American history to global histories of exchange, cultural interaction, political change and innovation. Thematically organized into five sections, the exhibition explores the origins of money, new monetary technologies, the political and cultural messages money conveys, numismatic art and design, and the practice of collecting money. The collection's diversity will be evident because the exhibition combines American money with objects from around the world, drawing out comparisons and connections between seemingly disparate places and times.

Since the vault door entrance prepares visitors to see authentic objects, The Value of Money project team wanted the door to be as authentic as possible. Therefore, our vault door replica was custom built for our gallery entrance by a company called Vault Structures Inc. based in Fort Myers, Florida. They manufacture operational vault doors for banks and other institutions.

Technical drawing of round vault door with measurements and views from different angles

After many months of construction, the vault door arrived at the museum on March 27, 2015. Vault Structures Inc. installed its frame first, then the door itself, using a forklift to place the heavy door at the gallery's entrance. The door and its frame weigh approximately 2,850 pounds, nearly 1.5 tons!

Man touches square vault door frame, which is being moved by a forklift

Two men adjust base of square vault door, which is being suspended by chains

View of the round vault door passing by on a forklift

Round vault door sits in front of installed frame

Two men line up the round door with the frame while it is suspended by a forklift

The forklift holds the round vault door in place, now uncovered, showing the complex mechanical elements

Man leans down adjusting something behind the round door, being held in place by a forklift

Now we are constructing the cases that will showcase more than 400 objects selected from the National Numismatic Collection's vault. They range from a $100,000 note issued for use in the U.S. Federal Reserve system in 1934 to a 168.5-pound stone ring used to make significant payments on Yap Island in the western Pacific. Over time, we will choose more objects from the collection to rotate into the gallery. This will give repeat visitors the opportunity to see something new and experience one of the most exciting aspects of curating such a large and varied collection—regularly discovering new objects and their value as sources to explore history.

Round door open on frame

The fabrication and installation of the door was made possible by an in-kind donation from Vault Structures Inc. and the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. Bill Calderazzo, and Mr. and Mrs. Larry L. Lee.

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection.

Posted in Numismatics