Managing the Collection: An Interview with Dr. Elena Stolyarik
Dr. Elena Stolyarik, Collections Manager at the American Numismatic Society, has held nearly every single one of the Society’s over 800,000 objects. As a critical member of the curatorial staff, the Collections Manager diligently maintains the Society’s vast, encyclopedic holdings of coins and currency, medals and money—all behind the scenes. Dr. Stolyarik’s background in museological, archaeological, and numismatic methods gives her a unique perspective on the purpose and function of the ANS. Prior to coming to the ANS in 1994, she led the Numismatic Department at the Odessa Archaeological Museum, excavated at Tyras on the Black Sea, and was a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In an interview at the Society’s headquarters in New York City, Dr. Stolyarik and Assistant Director Austin Goodwin Andrews discussed her work and the particularities of the Society and its holdings.
Austin Goodwin Andrews: What is the role of the Collections Manager at a research institution like the ANS, where object care and curation are so intermingled?
Elena Stolyarik: First of all, it means that you are a part of the professional team of one of the oldest museums and research institutions in the United States. The Society has been dedicated to researching numismatic objects and popularizing the field of numismatics since it was founded in 1858. Over the past 163 years, the Society obtained the objects in its collection from a range of sources, including from generous donations, bequests, and purchases. These and any new acquisitions should be properly maintained, preserved, and archived according to established museum practices and procedures. As the Collections Manager, I have several obligations. I register and manage documentation for all new museum objects, including accessioning and deaccessioning, cataloging, inventories, and other records. All of us in the curatorial department share responsibilities. We work as a team to ensure the collection is well cared for, documented, and made accessible to the public and for research. Because every one of us can replace each other when necessary, these are our mutual jobs.
AGA: I enjoy reading your column in the ANS Magazine with highlights of recent acquisitions. Before you write these, I know a lot of work goes into processing objects and accessioning them to be part of the Society’s collection, officially. What does the process of accessioning look like at the ANS?
ES: To accession objects, I prepare a list of gifts or purchases for the Trustees to approve. After approval, I register them, assign a group number, and then catalogue each object individually. We have a computer program set up with the correct fields. I indicate what we received and from whom we received. I write a short description and give each item its unique accession number. The curators also assign accession numbers, but I often accession Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins and for the Medals Department.
Before we accession objects, we need to be sure that they have a proper provenance, especially for ancient and medieval coins. We need to confirm that an object was not stolen from an excavation or taken illegally out of another country; we need to be sure that nobody will claim that this is their property. After accessioning, I give materials to our exceptional photographer, Alan Roche, and I write about a few examples for the magazine. When Alan is done with photographing, we insert them into the appropriate trays in our vault. When someone visits for research or a curator needs to find something, we need to know exactly where everything sits. Objects are grouped by periods, mints, or another system. If we have twenty coins from Roman Alexandria from the second or third centuries, they need to be inserted with the other coins from this mint, according to chronology. On the back of the box, we indicate who made the donation.
Before our move to digitizing the collection, this process was done on a card the same way books are processed in a library. Now, I register and catalogue on our computer program and this creates an electronic record. We also make records of what we’ve cataloged available publicly with high-resolution images through our online collections database, MANTIS. After that, we have another back-up record: I put all of this information in our huge accession book.
AGA: You’re also involved with exhibitions and oversee all of the loans we make to other institutions. While the ANS regularly loans objects to major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, we have loans to much smaller organizations, too, like the Bechtler House in rural North Carolina. What are some interesting examples of loans you’ve helped arrange?
ES: This is also my job: to keep track of loans, to process new loans, to renew loans, for sending insurance and loan agreements. Along with the curatorial staff, I provide consultation services, help with selections and installations of our objects, and serve as courier to the borrowing institutions to accompany our loans. Today, we have over 380 objects on view in permanent, temporary, and traveling exhibitions. We don’t have space for a big exposition here at the ANS, but we maintain our own Exhibition Hall with several cases on display to introduce our visitors to the history of numismatics. At the end of the year, the curatorial staff organizes a display with new annual acquisitions.
When we had the original screw-press for the gold Bechtler dollars in a popular exhibit at the Federal Reserve, someone visiting from the Bechtler House saw it there and coordinated requesting the loan. This unique artifact became the centerpiece in their exhibition at the historic home of Christopher Bechtler in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. This is very important because, year after year, people can now visit this house and they can see real history: not only the coins, but they can see how these coins were produced.
We had another interesting experience participating in an unusual exhibit organized by BVLGARI, known for its glamorous luxury products. This show, which was organized at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue, connected ancient Rome and the luxury brand since it was founded in Rome in 1884. It provided an opportunity to display some extraordinary objects from the ANS Roman Department, including a portrait coin of Julius Caesar and a remarkable example of a silver tetradrachm of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, among others.
We have objects at some of the best museums in the US and abroad. The Met often has objects from the ANS for temporary exhibits—such as their successful World between Empires exhibit about art and identity in the ancient Middle East—but they also prominently display our numismatic objects in their permanent exhibits.
I can think of many other interesting examples. The Jefferson Foundation at Monticello has displayed our silver Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace Medal since 1992 and War and Peace in Miniature: Medals from the American Numismatic Society was recently on temporary display at the Education Center at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. For several years, an exhibition organized by the American Museum of Natural History, called GOLD, traveled with over 70 gold coins from our collections and the Israel Museum presented a temporary exhibit with our material dedicated to the extraordinary discovery of Herod’s tomb at Herodium. The Block Museum of Art organized a traveling exhibit, Caravans of Gold, about cultural and economic exchanges across the Sahara Desert in the medieval period. This show was exhibited at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and then traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, where it will be on view until February 2022. All of these loans make our collection even more accessible to people around the world. Coins and medals and other objects from the ANS enrich exhibitions with sometimes very different topics.
AGA: This year has seen a lot of important discourse around how we collectively acknowledge and commemorate aspects of the past. Unlike memorial statues or public plaques, the money and medals in the ANS collection are contextualized, studied, and criticized without necessarily glorifying what they represent. How can the collection be a tool for education and deeper inquiry into these subjects?
ES: It’s why museums are so important. Each museum aims to preserve knowledge for many generations—information which should be accessible not for one year or two years, but it should be for a thousand years. For me, it’s about the preservation of historical sources. This is our mission and it’s an educational mission. We preserve to teach.
To examine an idea, you should use as many different sources as you can, to understand it. For history, this can include different literary sources, archaeological sources, and also numismatics. You can look at ancient coins, like the coins of Lysimachus or Ptolemy, and you can see faces. This is astonishing because you can see what they really looked like or how they wanted to be seen from thousands of years ago. I believe numismatics is a valuable kind of evidence for history and for teaching about the past. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture displayed the Society’s Butler silver medal of the Army of the James, which was given to Black soldiers in the Civil War, who were integral in winning the war and abolishing slavery in United States. It might be surprising, but this is why it’s important to see and learn the stories from these objects.
Along with written historical sources, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic sources are a materialization of the past. I still believe that you cannot remove from history difficult events, that you cannot erase the past. You can only learn from it. Coins and other artifacts show us how the world really was in a particular time and place, what was valued and who was in power. Coins are not just dead objects. They can talk, if you listen—if you really want to listen. This is ultimately the purpose of our collection, to allow for this kind of careful study.
AGA: Over the years, you have supported many scholars and researchers as they access the collection to conduct their research. From your perspective, what are the most studied areas of the collection and which could use more attention?
ES: The current most popular areas for study at the ANS are ancient numismatics, medals, and US material. A lot of people—especially from universities—visit to research ancient material because it’s the basis of their thesis or part of some study. The medieval and Islamic collections are less studied, but that, I think, is due to colleges not offering as many courses in the same way. Classes on the ancient Mediterranean exist and classes on the ancient Roman economy exist, but there are fewer programs in medieval studies like this. We have a brilliant curator of our Medieval Department, David Yoon, who is a well-educated historian, archaeologist, and numismatist. He’s currently leading our new project to digitize the medieval collection, which will put more images and updated information on our database. David does a lot to popularize this area of study and this project will open new opportunities for new research.
Because we are in the United States, there are many people interested in American history—and the ANS’s collection includes a large number of items in the US portion of the Medals Department and in the American Coins Department. On the other hand, if you look at our Summer Seminar, it’s less common for graduate students to come and research US material, even though there are many people interested in American numismatics. Right now, it’s wonderful for us to have someone who is so knowledgeable like Jesse Kraft, who is the Assistant Curator of American Numismatics. I see big potential for our new curatorial staff like him and Lucia Carbone, the Assistant Curator of Roman Coins, who is very hard-working and energetic.
Our chief curator, Peter van Alfen, is also great because he understands people, as a colleague and as an educator. His expertise in the Greek Department and passion for medallic art continues to drive the traditional areas of study at the ANS, while he also spearheads many of our recent innovations and digital efforts. All of our curators are very educated and professional; they conduct their own research and enjoy supporting other scholars and institutions for their research, too. We have very enthusiastic people here at the ANS. Along with our collection, this is our great strength.