Before Thanksgiving I had the great pleasure of participating in “Holding History in the Palm of One’s Hand: Contemporary Perspectives on Medals and Coins from Antiquity to the Recent Past,” an event at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, celebrating the exhibit “A Handheld History: Five Centuries of Medals from the Molinari Collection at Bowdoin College.” Three speakers, myself, Dr. Stephen K. Scher, and Prof. Susan Wegner, presented different aspects of medallic art and its history from its inception in the Italian Renaissance to the twenty-first century. We were then joined on stage by the curators of the exhibit, Amber Orosco, Stephen Pastoriza, and Benjamin Wu, for a panel discussion. Significantly, all three of the curators are currently undergraduate students at Bowdoin, which makes their achievement in curating this exhibit all the more remarkable.
In 1966, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art received from Amanda Marchesa Molinari a gift of a collection of approximately 1,500 art medals and 200 related books—including numerous rare volumes from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries— that she and her late husband, Cesare Molinari d’Incisa, had assembled over the course of several decades. The collection is rather astonishing for the large number of important medals of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries from Italy and Northern Europe especially, some of which, in fact, are lacking in the ANS’s collection, such as the John VIII Palaeologos medal by Pisanello. Curators at Bowdoin in the 1960s were certainly aware of the importance of this collection; a partial catalogue of the collection by Andrea Norris and Ingrid Weber was soon published and an exhibit of some of the highlights was put on display. In the decades since, however, this collection had not received the attention it rightly deserves.
In the summer of 2017, Museum Co-Director Dr. Anne Collins Goodyear and the student curators paid me a visit at the ANS and also spoke with Stephen Scher at The Frick Collection. Dr. Scher introduced them to highlights from the collection he had recently donated to the museum, then on view in the exhibition “The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals.” Their purpose was to discuss the history of the medal, the Molinari collection, and their intent to put on a new exhibit of this outstanding collection. The results of their efforts, “A Handheld History,” are truly impressive. In eight cases, the exhibit not only displays some of the most important pieces from the Molinari collection, but also focuses on various aspects of medal production, metallurgical analysis in the study of medals, and the evolution of medallic art over the centuries. Two of the cases are particularly noteworthy. One includes a 1723 edition of the folio volume accompanying the Histoire Métallique documenting the reign of Louis XIV of France along with a selection of the medals illustrated in the volume; another includes a volume of Gerard van Loon’s 1732 folio Beschryving der Nederlandsche historipenningen along with medals depicting the ill-fated de Witt brothers, Johan and Cornelis. Rarely indeed are these two important early volumes exhibited side-by-side along with some of the actual medals illustrated on their pages.
The exhibit will be on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through January 20, 2019. A video of the panel discussion will be made available on the Museum’s website.
The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War premiered as an online exhibition on July 31, 2017. Based on the physical exhibition by the same name, which ran from January 27–April 9 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, the online edition includes each of the 130 medals and posters with text and high-quality, “zoomable” color images. The online exhibition also includes video, maps, and links to the ANS’s collections database. Guests can browse the exhibit on their computers, tablets, and smart phones. The exhibition and its catalogue were co-edited by Peter van Alfen, the Margaret Thompson Curator of Greek Coins and head of Curatorial at the ANS, and Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The online exhibit was created by Andrew Reinhard, ANS Director of Publications.
This marks the first in a new series of free online exhibits created and curated by the ANS using tools provided by the Google Cultural Institute. The ANS collections include more numismatic specimens and artifacts than could ever be shown in its public exhibition space, or through loans to other museums. By curating permanent, online exhibits, the ANS can share its collections in organized, thematic ways for anyone to enjoy. Future online exhibits for 2017 include Funny Money: The Fight of the U.S. Secret Service against Counterfeit Money, curated by Ute Wartenberg, and an exhibition on Umayyad coinage curated by Vivek Gupta.
The printed exhibition catalogue for The Art of Devastation is available for purchase through the ANS’s store.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to look through the trays of coins and medals at the American Numismatic Society knows that the objects speak. They talk to us as we each have the ability to hear them. They speak to us of times long gone or only recently passed, of important events, and of people: the ones who made the objects, the ones who issued them, the ones depicted or named on them, and the ones who used or collected them. When I go through the Canadian section of the Society’s Indian Peace Medal collection some of the pieces there seem to have things to say about the coming sesquicentennial celebration of July 1, 1867—the day when the three British colonies of Canada (united modern Ontario and Québec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick joined together in Confederation and the Dominion of Canada was born (Fig. 1).
Every kid likes a good birthday party. Friends, family, presents, and cake are usually involved, so what could there possibly be not to like? However, sometimes as adults, birthdays can become a two-edged sword. While the party might be nice, at times our birthdays can also put us in touch with a sense of our own mortality or feelings of regret that make us uncomfortable. No matter how good the cake is, or how much ice cream is piled on, sometimes birthdays just end up reminding us of our frailties. There will be a big party and a lot of fireworks in Canada this July 1, but for truly reflective Canadians it is going to be one of one of those grown-up birthdays—not a kid one.
I have always thought that a remarkable silver medal in the ANS collection (Fig. 2) perfectly symbolizes the three founding peoples of Canada. The medal was struck in France under Louis XV (1715-1744) for distribution to the leaders of Aboriginal allies or to those who had rendered some exemplary service to the French in North America. The medal itself represents the earliest permanent European settlers in what was to become Canada (Port Royal was established in what became Nova Scotia in 1605 and Québec City in 1608) and its unknown recipient, the original people of the land. The medal’s obverse legend, which originally named Louis XV, but was reengraved in 1775 to name King George III of Great Britain, represents the third of the original founders of Canada—the English. Canadian territories claimed by France were ceded to Great Britain in 1763, at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). People from many other places across the globe have since come to Canada and have made their unique contributions to the country in the centuries that followed, but Aboriginal, French, and English were the original founders of the country, in that order.
The Aboriginal owner of the medal almost certainly had the legend re-engraved to indicate his acceptance of alliance with the British in North America on the eve of the American Revolution and to retain a nice relic of the old French regime—French medals were prized by their Aboriginal recipients because they were generally larger and heavier than most subsequent British Indian Peace medals. It is nevertheless difficult not to think of the re-engraving of the British monarch’s name on a French medal bestowed upon an Aboriginal as a kind of allegory for both the sequence of political dominance in Canada, from Aboriginal, to French, to British and for the building of English Canada on pre-existing Aboriginal and French foundations. The medal is also allegorical of the serious problem that makes the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation such an adult birthday: The colonial powers of France and Great Britain are both given visible form respectively through the medal itself and the re-engraved legend while its Aboriginal owner has left no trace. He is invisible.
A lot of things can happen to you when you are invisible. Bad things. To offer only a few examples: Your communities can languish for decades without basic amenities (e.g. running potable water) that would be unheard of elsewhere, but no one else will notice; 40 or more women and girls from your communities can disappear over as many years, but no one will seriously investigate; and mainstream media can make light of appropriating your culture as if you are not even in the room. Even worse, if the intrinsic value of your culture is considered by others to be invisible, it is an easy step to attempts to extinguish it through repugnant educational and social means.
The continuing and still largely unresolved burdens of invisibility on Canada’s Aboriginal peoples trace their roots back a long way, to the kind of colonial disregard for the colonized that is reflected in the story of the first medals used to establish treaties between Aboriginal peoples and the young Dominion of Canada.
Not long after Confederation, in 1871, Canada negotiated treaties with various Anishinaabe and Mushkego (Swampy Cree) peoples of what is now southern Manitoba (Treaty Nos. 1 and 2) as a means of opening up new land for settlement, while the Aboriginal signatories hoped to gain some measure of protection from an expected ruinous tidal wave of European settlers. By the time of these treaties it was already long-established custom to seal such agreements with the gift of a suit of clothes, a flag, and a medal to the signing chiefs. Canada, however, failed to obtain any sort of appropriate medal for the occasions of Treaty Nos. 1 and 2. Instead, the treaties were solemnized by the distribution of stock medium-sized medals engraved by J. S. and A. B. Wyon of a type that was normally used for prizes in school or at agricultural fairs.
The small size and the character of these medals understandably rankled with their recipients—they had signed away vast lands but in return did not receive even the dignity of a medal suitable for the occasion. In an attempt to mollify the resentment, in 1872, the government of Canada commissioned the Montréal silversmith, Robert Hendry, to produce 25 replacement medals (Fig. 3).
With a diameter of 95 mm and a thickness of 10 mm the new medals certainly responded to the complaint about size, but they still lacked in dignity. They were not struck from dies prepared for a dedicated treaty medal, but created by silver plating electrotype copies of a Wyon commemorative medal struck for Canadian Confederation and encasing them in 11 mm wide rings. Each ring was inscribed with an English legend identifying the medal as a “Dominion of Canada Chief’s Medal” and the intended recipients as “Indians of the Northwest Territories.” A further piece in the ANS cabinet (Fig. 4) indicates that Confederation medals were also distributed without the additional outer ring, presumably to important Aboriginal figures of lesser status than the main signatories of Treaty Nos. 1 and 2. However, such pieces are not mentioned in the surviving documentation.
While the size of the 1872 replacement Chief’s Medal was impressive, its thin silver plating, which had a tendency to wear off, was not. Therefore, at last in 1873, when Canada was preparing to negotiate Treaty No. 3 with the Anishinaabe peoples of what is now northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba, proper treaty medals were commissioned from the Wyons (Fig. 5) at a cost of $26 per medal and struck for distribution at the signing of Treaty No. 3 and eight further numbered treaty settlements that were negotiated up to 1921.
The objects in the ANS collection are always ready to speak. They regularly tell us of what has happened in the past, but sometimes also invite serious reflection on the present and future that has grown and will continue to grow out of a given past. Sometimes they even have something to say about birthday parties. All we have to do is listen.
On April 19, 2017, a new cultural institution, the Museum of the American Revolution, will open in downtown Philadelphia. It will present relics of the Revolutionary War to the public as a way of telling the dramatic story of the nation’s founding. For their inaugural exhibition the Museum of the American Revolution requested the loan of 12 eighteenth-century medals from the ANS. Several Colonial-period Indian peace medals are included in this loan. These medals were issued as tokens of friendship to members of Native American nations to gain their support and allegiance. This group includes two of the earliest Indian peace medals known: a British bronze medal with the image of George I (1714–1727) and a Native American hunting a deer with bow and arrow (fig.1), and a French silver medal with a bust of Louis XV (1715–1774) on the obverse, signed by Jean Duvivier, and a reverse depicting two warriors reaching out and clasping hands, the man on the right representing France, with the other representing the Indian allies of France (fig.2).
It is interesting to observe that on another ANS example of this Louis XV medal the name GORGE III [sic] was engraved over LUDOVICUS XV (fig.3).
Another remarkable medal in this group was issued at the time of Pontiac’s Revolt in 1763, a conflict named after the Ottawa chief who led the Indians of the Great Lakes region against British rule after end of the Seven Years’ War resulted in the transfer of claimed sovereignty over their lands from the French to the British. The obverse of this medal shows an armored George III with a legend containing his usual titles. The reverse depicts an American Indian and a uniformed British officer seated on bench under tree, smoking a pipe of peace (fig.4).
These early Indian peace medals carry immense historical importance both as landmarks in American colonial history and as symbols of the importance that the colonial powers placed on building alliances with the Native Americans. This portion of the exhibition explores the consequences of Anglo-American victory in the Seven Years’ War for the diverse peoples of North America, including former French and Spanish colonists living in the newly expanded British dominions and Native American nations of the Great Lakes and trans-Appalachian West.
Also among the ANS items on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution is a group of Admiral Vernon medals (figs. 5–6), exhibited in a gallery that introduces visitors to the Anglo-American sense of shared glory in all things British during the French and Indian Wars. These medals were issued in celebration of Admiral Vernon’s campaigns in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. On November 21, 1739, Admiral Vernon attacked the harbor of Portobelo in what is now Panama with six ships. After brief resistance the Spanish garrison surrendered. The British force destroyed the harbor fortifications before they left and returned to their base in Jamaica. Vernon then assembled a larger expeditionary force for an attack on Cartagena in what is now Colombia (fig.7).
When this fleet set sail in 1741 Admiral Vernon was commander of more than 50 warships, with 12,000 soldiers from England and the American colonies, many of whom died of disease during the futile campaign. Among the American survivors was Captain Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, who went on to name his home Mount Vernon after Admiral Vernon.