An "Oprah and the Prius" moment in the National Numismatic Collection


It began with a complaint. But as complaints go, this one was articulate and astute. Mary had just visited Stories on Money. Her love of ancient coins and understanding that we had one of the largest collections in the United States led her to the National Museum of American History and this exhibition. She had great expectations.

Her complaint expressed her disappointment, first with the rather small size of the show, then with finding less than a handful of ancient coins on display. Mary was searching for specific objects, ancient Greek coins from Syracuse and Corinth. She thought that a museum with a collection like the National Numismatic Collection–a cabinet that contains vast holdings in ancient and world coins and global currency–would certainly display more ancient Greek coins than she saw. These historically significant objects are ancestors of all later coins, including American ones.

I blanched at the prospect of explaining museum mission statements and why such collections as Numismatics, one of the oldest at the Smithsonian, don’t always fit neatly into its mission. But I digress: this story is about Mary’s quest for a special coin experience. After being tempted to ignore questions I was ill-equipped to answer, I decided to go straight to the point in my response. “Dear Mary,” I wrote, “ I am a curator with the National Numismatic Collection, and a complaint about your recent experience landed in my mailbox. The simple answer to your question is that, yes, with special consideration it is occasionally possible to visit to the collection even if you are an amateur collector. But let’s get acquainted: please tell me something about yourself and your specific interests.” Hoping that I had successfully navigated the difficult terrain of visitor complaints, I pushed "send.”

Little time elapsed before a response appeared, full of details and questions. Mary was no amateur, for she dove into ancient Macedonian coinage like a salty senior numismatist. This visitor knew exactly what she wanted, and now the ball was back in my court. But it wasn’t really MY court: the museum is full of experienced people who take the responsibility for collection stewardship very seriously. So to a trusted curatorial colleague I posed the question, “If a visitor writes a (nice) complaint because they do not find a specific object on public display, can they come behind the scenes to see it? ” “Yes, as long as . . . ”. Did I hear correctly? “Probably.” “And what are the conditions for the visit, if it were to happen?” And so the discussion began.

Mary W visit

I emailed Mary to gather more information. Our email exchange lasted for weeks, as I meanwhile wound my way through conversations with colleagues to identify their concerns. “Ask her if she knows anyone we already know-it would help to have a reference.” Great idea: perhaps a shared enthusiasm for coins would connect us to Mary in some reassuring way. No luck. But in the risk-benefit analysis, we decided that Mary’s knowledge, curiosity, and passion for ancient coins was as legitimate as if she had been introduced through a scholarly referral. And Mary did eventually visit the National Numismatic Collection’s library to see about twenty of her “dreams.”

Not all curators would have made this decision, nor should they; but in this case her visit presented the opportunity to wrestle with an important question about access to collections. While museum staff try to accommodate research requests, the final decision depends on the circumstance. For example, is the request from a scholar or donor? Is an appropriate staff member available to work with the visitor for the duration of their visit? Unfortunately, we are not able to offer collection tours for people who call out of general curiosity. But we’re glad that we could work it out with Mary. In preparation, our volunteer Joe Daragan, an expert in ancient Greek and Roman coins, assembled the “dream team” of ancient material. He regaled Mary with stories—about symbols, history, and little-known details concerning the coins we examined. As I listened to Joe and watched Mary taking notes, it felt good to have created a unique experience for a Smithsonian museum visitor.

Mary W excitedly taking notes

In Mary’s thank you email, she said "I am overwhelmed, this was my Oprah and the Prius moment. Thank you for the article about Cleopatra, the reading list, and the memory.”

Karen Lee is a curator with the National Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History.