CoinWeek Podcast #51: Globetrotting with Numismatourist Howard Berlin

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Howard Berlin is the Numismatourist. Collector, veteran columnist and author of the definitive guide to museums and exhibitions dealing with coins, medals, and paper money. In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, CoinWeek editor Charles Morgan discusses the world’s great numismatic exhibits and collections as Howard prepares him for the road ahead.

We also touch upon contentious topics, like why museums hate ancient coins, why one of the world’s greatest state collections is not on display, and why Monticello is a sad and depressing ramshackle compared to its European counterparts.
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The following is a transcript of Charles and Howard’s discussion:

Charles Morgan: Howard, thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Howard Berlin: Fine. My Pleasure to be with you.

CM: Howard, you’ve made a career writing about various topics, including numismatic topics. But what most collectors know you for is your series of articles that formed the basis of your book The Numismatourist, which is a travel guide of places in the United States and abroad that have numismatic collections on display. What drew you to combine numismatics and travel?

HB: Well, I have really three interests. Well, among several others. But the three that are associated with this book, or that I like to write. I write books and articles, since the early 1970s. I like to travel. I have as one of my interests, numismatics. And when I write a book, I try to write on a topic that has not been written on before. That way I don’t have to compete with a number of other publications on the same topic. It’s like when I was teaching at college, electrical engineering, a publisher would want me to write a book on a particular topic, and I’d say, “Well, there’s already 50 books on this topic and even at your publishing house, you have 10. Why would you want another book?” So, I try to write things where there’s really no competition, at least for the time being.

The original impetus for this particular book started from a column, a bi-monthly column that I wrote for one of the sister publications of Coin World. And after a while, I collected a number of places that I had been to and was going to write about and I thought, why not compile these all in a book… and the late Dick Doty of the Smithsonian thought it was a good idea. So, that’s where the impetus, to me, the origin of this particular book came from.

CM: What do you think people can learn about a country by seeing a numismatic exhibit at a national collection?

HB: I think they can learn quite a bit about the history of the country. How its monetary policy has developed over the course of the country’s growth and they can learn about the economic system of the country and also a lot of the personages, especially in the United States… pictures of people who have appeared on coins and banknotes. And it’s pretty much the same with other countries, although Greece in its very early stages used to have various motifs of birds, goddesses, buildings, et cetera. So in addition to having their particular rulers on the other side of the coin. So they can learn quite a bit about each country by looking at the coinage over a wide timespan.

CM: You know about a month or a month-and-a-half ago I met up with Jeff Garrett and Dr. Ellen Feingold, the curator of the National Numismatic Collection, to do a video shoot – you can check out this video on our YouTube channel… one of the things I was really quite interested in in my own personal reaction was when we pulled out a drawer housing three 1804 dollars – so that’s a very valuable and rare coin three times over – but, it’s a different experience when you are looking at something like that at a museum – you are looking at coins like these without the context of value – and so it’s been my experience that when you look at coins at museums, that you see them differently than you would if they were coins in your own collection. Maybe it’s a pride of ownership thing. Do you agree with what I’m saying?

HB: Yeah, um, I think you and I have an advantage when we are visiting museums that very few other people have. At least the visitors. In that we are able to, in many cases, get behind the scenes… like with Ellen Feingold and past people I knew at the Smithsonian, I was given the privilege to go into the vault and pulling out drawers and taking a look at coins that very few people would get to see or hold in their hands. The same is true overseas… in Germany, in England, and even in Israel, where I could hold some of the coins that were in the vault… so to speak… that never get to see the light of day, or at least only on special occasions.

Now obviously my collection, or even when I had my collection, some of these things could never compare to it. In my own case, my collection, which is no longer… I disposed of it through several dealers… I’m proud to say was more complete than almost any museum. Of course my collection was a very specific area, and it wasn’t the United States. It was Palestine Mandate coins and banknotes. But nonetheless, I’m always impressed by how the various museums arrange and curate their exhibitions. The techniques they use… mirrors, computers, stands, colors, and the types of material in how they present their text material. Because I used to exhibit, do a lot of competitive exhibiting… so a lot of that is very interesting to me. I guess I’m a frustrated curator at heart, I like to arrange exhibits in my head nowadays. It’s very interesting to look at things behind the scenes, but also, I’m very interested in the actual exhibits that the visitors get to see.

CM: One of our writers, Ancient coin writer Mike Markowitz wrote a piece a few years ago, titled Why Museums Hate Ancient Coins. Two of the reasons that he gave in his piece are security concerns as it comes to these tiny coins – and the second thing is that they are very difficult to exhibit. Do you agree with the sentiment that museums would rather not have to deal with coins, or do you find that recent trends in curation have created new and better opportunities to display coins in ways that excite people?

HB: The first thing, as it comes to exhibiting coins, is that in most cases, people only see one side of the coin. Some museums have done a very excellent job in using mirrors to reflect the other side of the coin – such as the reverse of a coin, where the obverse is up lying and being visible. Some museums have also done a very interesting technique of putting the coin in a rotating type holder, where you can spend the holder around and see the obverse and reverse of the coin.

Some museums also are fortunate enough to have two of the same coins, so they can display both the obverse and the reverse on a flat surface. Not everybody is able to do that, especially with the rare specimens.

Now with banknotes, that’s always been problematic because of lighting. There are some museums, one in particular that I remember in Helsinki from the Central Bank is almost dark because they don’t want ultra violet light to effect the color of the banknotes over a period of time. Of course, this has always been a problem with the ANA museum, at least I have been told by the curator there. They are very careful with the lighting, the type of lighting has been improved so that it doesn’t effect the manuscripts and banknotes over a period of time.

Security is generally a problem. There are museums that have very fine coin collections but don’t exhibit them. And security, generally, is the main reason they give for not doing that. They are available to qualified researchers to look at and maybe photograph, etc., but in general they don’t want to deal with the costs of security. Only the–I should say–the very well-endowed museums can afford to properly display their exhibits.

CM: Do you have any favorite museums of places that a collector should consider as a definite go-to?

HB: Well, of course, there’s here in the United States, the Federal Reserve Banks: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, for example, Denver, and San Francisco… have numismatic displays of their banknotes. Of course, the ANA in Colorado is another museum. Overseas, if you are fortunate enough to do any traveling, especially the bigger cities, like London. The British Museum up on the third floor in room 67, if I remember right, has a … well it used to be by HSBC Bank, but now it’s by Citibank, which endowed the exhibit, which is basically the history of money. Very well done exhibition… and it all depends where your businesses lie.

The Bank of China, I understand, has a very nice exhibit. The Bank of Tokyo has a very good exhibit. Some museums don’t have a room or a set of galleries set aside for the coins by themselves, but the coins are integrated throughout the exhibition of the entire museum… so you get an idea, sometimes, of how coins fit in with a particular time period, with the rest of the history of that period in a museum.

Israel, naturally, in their Israel Museum outside of Jerusalem has a very excellent exhibition of ancient coins on up to the present. The Bank of Israel has a very nice exhibit of coins from the early eras of coinage on to the present.

There are so many museums that are excellent in the way they present their exhibitions.

CM: Are there any museums or exhibits that you haven’t had a chance to see, that you definitely want to? And do you think there’s enough material out there for you to do a follow-up to your Numismtourist?

HB: I’m always finding out new museums. I’ll be in Germany again. I go to Germany several times, about three or four times a year. In March, I’ll in the northern part of Germany near Hamburg and Rostock and Schwerin, there are several museums in the north-eastern part of Germany… state museums that have exhibitions that I haven’t seen yet. In February, I will be in Cyprus, in Nicosia, there’s a bank museum that has an exhibition that I haven’t been to. There’s one or two in Istanbul that I will be in when I leave Cyprus, even though I’ve been in Istanbul before.

Most of the ones that I haven’t really been to are pretty much centered in Southeast Asia. Although I’ve been to Tokyo and Hong Kong. Southeast Asia for me is quite a bit of a long-haul flight and I’m now over 70 years old and I’m just not fit for traveling long distances without a break. So that’s always been a hard area for me to get to. Even though there’s a number of places that Howard Daniel has told me about in Southeast Asia that have collections on display – I have some of them in my book, as far as listing them. But personally, even though I’ve been to over 60 countries, I’ve never been to the ones in Southeast Asia. Most of the ones I’ve been to have been in Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. And there’s some in the Caribbean, Central America, and quite a few in South America that I have not been to also.

CM: I’ve always heard that The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has an amazing numismatic collection. Have you ever checked that out?

HB: I was in The Hermitage, I’d have to say, back in 1968. All of the people that I knew, or that I know that have contact with The Hermitage and even with several other museums in Moscow, and so-called Leningrad… St. Petersburg, including The Hermitage… they don’t like to display their collection. I don’t know whether it’s an old Soviet thing that they have- they are very cautious about. And I’ve written to them, even in Russian, writing to them in Russian… even though I haven’t spoken in Russian in over 50 years, they wrote back and said “Our collection is not on display.”

I can only say that it’s rumored that they have a fantastic collection, but I haven’t seen it or even seen pictures of it.

CM: Yeah, it’s amazing. Because if you go to the Kremlin, they have platinum and gold ingots on display at the Diamond Fund Museum – such an extraordinary amount – and they make no bones about showing this truly impressive and valuable collection – but they don’t want to show off their coins.

HB: I remember that. Yes. It’s very impressive when you see that when you go into the Kremlin and the many museums and churches that are inside the wall.

CM: It’s a very beautiful place. If you’ve never been there, or never been to Europe, you really have no idea how luxurious this architecture is.

As a humorous aside, I spent about a week in Vienna doing film shoots for CoinWeek, and I come back and I take my family to Monticello that weekend… and I’ve seen it a lot because I went to the University of Virginia and my wife went there and we have a house not too far away from it. But in the context of having just seen the seat of the Habsburg Dynasty and going from that to seeing this rinky-dink Monticello… it was almost depressing in its scale and lack of opulence and how it was an amateur interpretation of the magnificence of European architecture.

HB: Yeah, the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna is quite an interesting building. It’s like one of the museums that has four or five galleries on one floor, one section of the second floor that is designated for the numismatic collection of banknotes, coins, orders & medals. But then a lot of people may not even know it’s there. Because unlike, say, the Numismatic Museum of Athens, which is a museum strictly for numismatics, you may not, like I say, that there’s coins there. People will just walk by the entrance of that gallery and not even pay any attention to it, which I find is really a shame.

CM: Yeah, the room itself of that museum exhibit is quite striking too. It has this long corridor, with glass ceilings, which let the light in from outside and they have rows and rows of coins and medals and that giant “transmuted” gold disc. It’s visually one of the most compelling exhibits that I’ve ever seen.

HB: Yes, it is quite impressive. I have a picture of a gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum on the back cover of my book, in the upper lefthand corner… one of the two pictures on the back cover of that gallery. And it’s very impressive. Especially that very large gold piece on display.

CM: So, I’m going to be heading over to Berlin in February for the World’s Money Fair and I’m going to spend about three or four days in the city, checking out a number of numismatic exhibits. Which museums would you recommend that I put at the top of my list?

HB: Ok, well… fortunately, the three museums that I would go to are pretty much in the same area. Two of them are on museum island, that is the Bode Museum. And the second one is the Altes Museum. That meaning the “old museum”, because there is a “New Museum”, and its right in the same square as the Berlin Cathedral. The other museum, which I abbreviated DHM, which in English stands for the German Historical Museum is right on the Underlinden Boulevard on the opposite end of the boulevard from the Brandenburg Gate. That is a museum where the coins are integrated in the displays throughout the museum with other historic artifacts. So those three, I would go to.

Of course, if you are in interested into beer also, there are lots of microbreweries. There are several brewery tours that you can go to. But the museums will take you a little while. It’s not something you go through in a half an hour. So those will take a while. There’s other museums. There are art museums in Berlin. I go to Berlin about four or so times a year. I’ve been working on another book about Berlin – nothing having to do with coins. So I go there to get more research and take more photographs. I have maybe 4,000 photographs, some of which are the same. But that way I can choose which ones I want. But flying into Berlin, I like it. I speak German. So getting around is not a problem, although English is widely spoken as well as even Russian in many cases now. But those three museums should be at the top of your list.

CM: Well, I appreciate those tips. I will take you up on those museum recommendations and the beer recommendations, and not necessarily in that order. I personally love going to Germany. There’s so much history and energy to the place and Berlin is a very special city.

Thank you, Howard, for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

* * *

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