From the Collections Manager (Summer 2004)

by Elena Stolyarik

A year ago, in the summer 2003 issue of the American Numismatic Society Magazine, I wrote an article entitled “What It Takes to Move a Collection of over 1 Million Objects.” At that moment, I was not sure how to finish such a complex task. Today, however, I know the answer and can give advice (solicited, or not) to anyone attempting to repeat our “feat.”

Anyone who has ever moved knows how stressful it can be. And moving this large, valuable, and in many cases irreplaceable institutional collection is like moving every day for weeks on end! In the months it took actually to transport the collections, my colleagues and I often had nights filled with dreams of the tools (bubble-wrap, ethafoam, tape, seals, box-cutters) of our new trade (packing, sealing, stacking, unpacking).

Alexandra Halidisz and Aviva Gray
Normand Pepin Robert Wilson Hoge
Andrew Schloss
Sophia Gofman, Elena Stolyarik and Alexandra Halidisz
Peter van Alfen and Sebastian Heath
Rick Witschonke and Elena Stolyarik

Since the purchase of the Fulton Street building was announced, those members familiar with Audubon Terrace proposed varying scenarios to the ANS staff for moving the collections — with suggestions ranging from practical to fanciful Jules Verne-inspired scenarios — some stealthy, some grand; from affordable to, well, less so.

One thing was clear: getting the collections out of Audubon Terrace was going to be more difficult than getting them into Fulton Street. The ANS at Audubon Terrace comprises two buildings erected ca. 1907 and 1930. The main entrance faces north onto Audubon Terrace, and moving the collections from the Greek and Roman vaults involved crossing a distance of approximately 450 feet to Broadway, including two Terrace staircases (fourteen steps down/seven up), for a total of twenty-one steps. To move another large part of our collection from the main vault to the main Terrace entrance we would have had to add to this calculation an additional twenty steps down to the lower level and also an additional twelve steps down from the upper level within that vault (statistics provided by ANS invaluable volunteer and member Normand Pepin).

The service entrance on the south side, our alternative, faces a steeply sloping 155th Street and can be reached either on multiple stairs via a narrow semicircular staircase, or via the easier route through the building’s on-site superintendent’s apartment. This was the route ultimately chosen. (To move collections out though upper-story windows was rejected as too impractical.) Because of all the steps and space limitations, forklifts and other mechanical equipment could not be used. This meant employing manpower exclusively. After much deliberation, a basic system was devised and the needed material procured. In the end, wooden cases were built, each just large enough to hold about ten trays and weighing fifteen pounds empty (and when loaded with coins or medals, twenty to eighty pounds, depending on contents). Each case would be carried by two men holding one of two handles bolted to the side of each case. Since the move would be spread over many days (and weeks!) we could use 150 multi-use cases instead of 1500 or so single-use boxes.

Dawn Bennett Michael Bates
Sophia Gofman Jerry Jagernaugh and Garfield Miller

On the appointed days, carried by two men one-by-one, each case would wend its way from its vault of origin though the building—and the apartment—to 155th Street and be loaded into the moving company’s truck for the ride downtown via either the West Side Highway or FDR drive, with an unmarked car full of armed detectives right behind. Meanwhile, at Fulton and William streets, another group of detectives were taking their positions and waiting for the “items” to arrive. Once in front of the building, unloading was fast and efficient. Again came the cases, one-by-one, carried by two men into the building, up a short ramp to one of two waiting elevators to our new coin room and vault.

In the new vault the process was reversed: check each case against the inventory list, break the seal, remove the packing foam, remove tape and further ethafoam, place the trays into their new permanent coin cabinet, and remove the next tray until the carrying case is empty. Repeat, again and again…. The Monday, Wednesday, Friday delivery schedule, and the goal of maintaining a steady number of cases per trip, meant that both packing and unpacking continued on weekends and over the Memorial Day holiday. The weather was never a factor, though the closing of Fulton Street for a Flag Day parade postponed all deliveries.

Over the last several months, we could not take advantage of the museum’s closure to leisurely pack all the trays for the move before the movers arrived. The movers had thought that on the appointed day they would transport the collection downtown in one fell swoop and that would be that! But indeed, one of the reasons for the ANS’ move was lack of space within the vaults. Once out of their highly space-efficient coin cabinets, the coin trays would be in the aisles in their custom-built carrying cases and, unlike materials from the library and other parts of the building, the coin cases could never leave the vaults until the very last minute (for obvious reasons). This meant that very little work could be done ahead of time—so little, in fact, that the ANS staff and volunteers were often packing trays in the morning, hopping on the subway to Fulton Street at lunchtime and unpacking the same trays that afternoon. Staffing levels and location varied depending on factors such as time of day and day of the week.

ANS Fellow, good friend and loyal volunteer Ted Withington, who devoted a lot of time to this move, joked that we could now write a monograph complete with step-by-step instructions on how to move a museum collection. Here are some samples:

  • Remove coin tray from cabinet, put on table
  • Place one sheet of ethafoam on tray, and tape edges.
  • Slide tray into carrying case
  • Repeat nine times or until no more trays can fit.
  • Fill in any gap between top of top tray and inner top of carrying case with ethafoam, plywood or other materials.
  • Record all tray numbers
  • Close and seal carrying case, and record seal number and case number.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat….

From time to time we tried to improve our packing-unpacking process. At first, everyone was highly cautious and the first trays had a gift-wrapped look, as NO space was left un-taped. There was no way to be sure, until the plan was put into practice and the first batch of trays was unpacked, that we would know whether our methodology was sound. Eventually confidence grew, a routine and rhythm were established and what didn’t work or seemed superfluous (mostly, too much tape) was cut out enabling us to maximize output safely.

With fond memories of our teamwork and long hours working feverishly together, I expressing deep gratitude to my colleagues: the ANS curatorial staff, Robert Hoge, Peter van Alfen, Michael Bates, Sebastian Heath; our assistants, Dawn Bennett, Alexandra Halidisz, Sophia Gofman, and Aviva Gray; intern Andrew Schloss (University of Rochester) and Summer Seminar student Lauren Jacobi (Institute of Fine Arts, NYU), Pamala Wright, Director of Development, Juliette Pelletier, Membership and Development Manager, and Muserref Yetim, Editorial Assistant. Special thanks go to our volunteers—Rick Witschonke (former member of our Board of Trustees), who had to drive more than an hour from his home, and Ted Withington (long-term ANS helper), who called me nightly to find out what building to report to the next morning. I would like also to pay tribute to Normand Pepin, who worked very hard to help safely move the ANS Library; his book-packing talents were greatly esteemed by the moving company workers, who offered to hire him! Normand, however, preferred spending his “free time” with the curatorial department team and helping with our packing and unpacking.

There were many bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes; obstacles to overcome and problems to solve. Though tempers occasionally flared, the goal pulled us through. Sometimes complicated situations gave us pause, and aggravations, but all of us fulfilling our personal assignments with great patience and diligence helped the ANS in this very historic moment. So now we are delighted to report to our members and friends that WE DID IT!!! Visit us at our new location, where one of the oldest research institution and museums in the country continues its illustrious history.

Lauren Jacobi Juliette Pelletier
Ted Withington Muserref Yetim