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Installations, Deinstallations: The Working Lives of Museum Loans

By John Thomassen for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
The American Numismatic Society’s collection is not housed entirely at 75 Varick Street. This may come as a surprise to some readers, but it’s true. In addition to the objects held offsite (chiefly, our MACO collection), many other objects are housed within the confines of other institutions entirely, namely the plethora of museums that host short-term exhibits and long-term loans of material from the storied collection of the ANS.

Despite the relatively low-profile nature of loans, almost every museum is involved in the loan process in some way, either by lending objects, or receiving them from private individuals or other institutions for both temporary and long-term exhibits. Still, it may behoove the reader to learn a little more about how the ANS loans out material, and why.

First, the why. This may be a bit obvious, but it’s worth stating plainly: when it comes to certain types of material, some museums possess a lot. The ANS has a world-class numismatic collection. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has one of the best African tribal arts collections in the U.S. (really!). And the Louvre? Well, the Louvre has a lot of masterpieces. So it makes sense that a museum specializing in the Spanish artist Salvador Dali would also specialize in loaning out his works. Likewise, the ANS is happy to loan numismatic specimens, as long as specific requirements are met.

But another reason is that some museums are just very large and quite simply own many diverse and impressive collections, and that wide array allows them to distribute objects from across a broad spectrum (ancient to modern, organic to inorganic, Western to Eastern, etc.) to other smaller, regional, and often less well-endowed museums. This benefits the smaller museums, as they are able to showcase works that they would not be able to purchase or afford otherwise, and the big museums benefit from the magnanimity that comes with loaning out objects. Ultimately, everyone wins, as museums-goers get to view rare works closer to home, scholarship is improved by the shared study of objects, and small and large museums alike get to share globally important objects.

The ANS is absolutely the former: we specialize in numismatic objects, from the oblique, to the tangential, to the definitively numismatic. So it is no wonder that we field multiple inquiries per year regarding potential loans. Anecdotally, about 50% do not pan out, but the rest do. Those that do materialize undergo a nearly identical process: the borrower reaches out to discuss our loan process, then works with ANS Curators to select their objects, those objects are approved by the ANS’s Collections Committee, pickup and display of the loan is coordinated, and finally, the loan is returned once the exhibit is over. The following sections outline two of the above processes: delivery, and returns.

Temple Emanu-El Bernard Museum of Judaica

Figure 1. ANS coins mounted alongside other antiquities featuring the etrog.
Figure 1. ANS coins mounted alongside other antiquities featuring the etrog.

Just a few days ago, the author of this present post was able to visit the Temple Emanu-El Bernard Museum of Judaica to view an exhibit opening on September 5, 2023, on the etrog, which contains coins picked by the Society for this exhibit along with many other wonderful objects on loan from other institutions. In short, the exhibit is both well-curated and extremely informative, and sufficiently piques the viewer’s interest for more, which thankfully exists next door in the museum’s permanent exhibit. This loan was initiated in the spring of 2023, and after approval, the coins were delivered by the ANS in the late summer. Over 20 (yes, 20) institutions were contacted to contribute material to this temporary exhibit on the etrog fruit, also called ethrog [scholarly], esrog [Ashkenazi Hebrew], and, more generically, citron. When the ANS was contacted, ANS staff worked with ANS First Vice President David Hendin to pick the perfect examples of coins featuring the etrog for this exhibit, which includes the following coins:

● Bronze 1/2 Coin of 1st Jewish War, Jerusalem, 69-70 CE (ANS 2010.69.40)
● Bronze 1/4 Coin of 1st Jewish War, Jerusalem, 69-70 CE (ANS 2010.69.42)
● Bronze 1/8 Coin of 1st Jewish War, Jerusalem, 69-70 CE (ANS 2010.69.44)
● Silver tetradrachm of Bar Kokhba Revolt, Jerusalem, 134-135 CE (ANS 2010.76.109)

Figure 2. A display of elaborate silver etrog boxes.
Figure 2. A display of elaborate silver etrog boxes.

For those unaware, the etrog is used in Judaism during the holiday of Sukkot, together with the lulav (palm frond), hadass (myrtle), and aravah (willow branch), as one of the four species displayed during specific portions of that holiday’s prayers. The exhibit in question covers practically every aspect of the etrog, from ancient depictions through modern interpretations, and is a must-visit if you live in the New York City area. Highlighted below are a few photos taken prior to the exhibit’s opening, which runs from September 5 through November 20, 2023, and is open to the public Sundays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Figure 3. A cloth etrog container commissioned for the exhibit with a stitched recipe for etrog preserves.
Figure 3. A cloth etrog container commissioned for the exhibit with a stitched recipe for etrog preserves.
Figure 4. Sukkot by Polish artist Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933) on loan from The Jewish Museum.
Figure 4. Sukkot by Polish artist Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933) on loan from The Jewish Museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure 5. Met staff member unmounting ANS coins.
Figure 5. Met staff member unmounting ANS coins.

Where there are installations, deinstallations must inevitably take place as well.

One such deinstallation took place in the spring of 2023, although this one was a bit more unusual. Material on loan from the ANS to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (otherwise known as “The Met”) are generally long-term loans, and the material removed in this exercise was no exception. But as the Met is completely reimagining their Ancient Near Eastern and Cypriot Art galleries, it was determined that items on loan from the ANS should be returned until the new galleries are finished, so that these coins could be rephotographed and once again made available for research here at the Society’s headquarters.

Figure 6. ANS coins arranged for ANS and Met review.
Figure 6. ANS coins arranged for ANS and Met review.

On a sunny spring Wednesday (the Met is closed on these days so that work can be performed in galleries and other areas where ticketed customers can access), ANS Collections Manager John Thomassen and ANS Director of Photography Alan Roche headed uptown to both document and help oversee the temporary deinstallation of ANS coins pertaining to the Near East and Cyprus. To say that the present author was excited by this half-day excursion is a bit of an understatement. Although I am surrounded by a world-renowned numismatic collection on a near-daily basis, I was thrilled at the prospect of being allowed ‘behind the scenes’ at one of the top art museums in the world.

Figure 7. Met staff member carefully examines ANS 1944.100.33890.
Figure 7. Met staff member carefully examines ANS 1944.100.33890.

When Alan and I arrived, we were greeted by our Met hosts, ushered through tight security, and then taken to the wing where the deinstallation work was being conducted. After making multiple introductions, we were set to task, helping to examine ANS coins, ensuring that all objects were accounted for, and returning them safely to their archival flips for later transport back to 75 Varick. Irrespective of my own excitement, it was a relatively quiet and routine procedure, and a scene like the one recounted here happens nearly every week across the globe, as museums from every country imaginable share their wealth of knowledge, their resources, and–perhaps most importantly–their cultural artifacts for all to engage with.

Figure 8. ANS and Met staff talking shop.
Figure 8. ANS and Met staff talking shop.

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American Numismatic Society (ANS)

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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