Volunteer Impressions (Summer 2004)

by Rick Witschonke

Last year I retired after a 30-year career in the field of technology consulting, and decided to spend some of my new-found free time doing volunteer work at the ANS. Since January, I have spent an average day a week at the Society, and have been having a wonderful time.

Since childhood, I’ve collected coins, specializing in the Roman Republic, and the provincial Roman coinage of that era. I’ve been a Fellow of the Society for many years, and served for several years on the Board. I got in touch with Sebastian Heath, ANS Director of Information Technology, and he suggested I help out with the creation of digital images of the Society’s collection for the online database, a massive and important project. Since the Roman Proconsular cistophori are one of my interests, Sebastian suggested we start with those. So, on January 27, 2004, I came in to the Society, and Sebastian patiently introduced me to the mysteries of capturing images using the Society’s Nikon digital camera, and then using Photoshop to enhance the images and make them web ready. The process is much more complex than I had expected (over 100 separate steps for each side of each coin), and on the first day it took me five hours to process four coins! Since then, we have begun using the Epson scanner, which gives results almost equivalent to the camera for most coins, and has the advantage of enabling you to capture eight images at a time. As a result, I was able to get my productivity up to eight coins per hour, a big improvement.

As a collector, the rather tedious task was lightened by being able to enjoy and appreciate the coins themselves. The riches of the Society’s collections are legendary, and it was fascinating to see firsthand coins that had been donated by famous collectors, or tickets written by Edward T. Newell and other early curators for coins they had wisely purchased in the 30’s and 40’s. Since I knew the coinage, I was able to add attributions according to Stumpf’s recent reference on the series. I discovered that Stumpf’s number 11.a (supposedly a specimen in the ANS trays) is actually an electrotype of the British Museum specimen (clearly marked as such). And I discovered a unique cistophorus of Hieropolis that Newell had donated, which I subsequently found had been published in 1950 in Museum Notes by Sydney P. Noe.

Then, in late April, the focus of the entire curatorial staff turned to the move from Audubon Terrace to Fulton Street. Elena Stolyarik, ANS Collections Manager, asked me if I would be willing to help with the move, and I gladly signed up. I was asked to help in packing some of the hundreds of trays of plaster casts of ancient coins that ANS curators have accumulated over the years to do the many die studies of ancient coinages that are so important to the advancement of knowledge of these series. While carefully wrapping these fragile artifacts of decades of numismatic scholarship, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work which must have been involved in producing a single die study. For example, the large cabinet containing the casts for Margaret Thompson’s die study of the New Style coinage of Athens contains about 3000 casts, collected over a period of years through correspondence with curators of collections all over the world (or personal visits to the collections). Then each cast was studied, and a die-linked sequence of the issues constructed (enough to blind a normal human). Then, the chronological conclusions were drawn, the text written, and the catalogue published. But, since it is impossible to publish photographs of every specimen (or even every die) in the finished work, the cabinet of casts represents the audit trail of the work done by the scholar, and the starting point for any future student of the series. Thus, the casts, even though not actual coins, have tremendous scholarly value in themselves, and must be carefully preserved. This is one of the things that the ANS does so well.

Another side benefit of assisting in the packing was that I got to explore the labyrinth of the old ANS building. I was familiar with the exhibition rooms, the Library, and the Greek and Roman vaults, but had never seen the two-story upstairs vault, or many of the subterranean rooms. I even discovered that the building actually included living quarters for some of the staff. And I got to see the fabled “swimming pool”, a large room which extends out under Audubon Terrace, and apparently had a tendency to flood.

Then, in late May, the actual move of the collections began in earnest. Elena had done a marvelous job of planning the move, including the design of specially-constructed wooden boxes to hold the trays, and an elaborate security procedure to ensure that every tray could be accounted for. And, for the entire period of the move, she was the field general, commanding the troops, and making sure the move went smoothly. The fact that we were able to move 700,000 specimens without misplacing even one item is testimony to her planning and execution skills (and a lot of hard work by the entire staff, the volunteers, and the moving company).

The packing and unpacking of the trays gave me a unique view of the diversity and depth of the Society’s collections. I saw samplings of the Greek trays, plus Oriental, Islamic glass weights (a real challenge to pack, but we didn’t break a single one), antique coin scales, Goetz medals, modern Latin American, war medals, Swedish plate money, and even wooden nickels. And, even though the work was quite physical, the camaraderie among the staff made the whole experience very pleasant.

Rick Witschonke and Michel Amandry

We were able to finish the move just in time for the beginning of the ANS Graduate Student Seminar, and this was particularly enjoyable for me, since Michel Amandry, of the Cabinet des Medailles in Paris is the Visiting Scholar this year, and he is an old friend. Peter van Alfen, ANS Curator of Greek Coins, who runs the Seminar, asked me if I would do a presentation to the students on the Roman Cistophori. I immediately accepted Peter’s kind invitation, and began spending time in the Library, doing research for my paper. This was the first time I had used the ANS Library extensively, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to have such easy access to the finest numismatic library in the world. Sitting at a table in the library, you have virtually every book, article, and journal that you could possibly want within 20 feet of you, and they are arranged in such an intuitive, user-friendly way, that you can easily find what you want within seconds, without having to even consult a catalogue. Frank Campbell, the ANS Librarian, and his staff deserve tremendous credit for maintaining such a valuable and accessible resource, and for getting the entire library moved to the new building and organized in time for the Seminar.

Finally, a note on the ANS staff. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all of the curators, and their excellent assistants. Their friendliness, openness, and willingness to help me with any problem have made my time at the ANS delightful. I look forward to continuing to work with them.