[Fort]Night at the Museum

No, I’m not Ben Stiller. I also don’t work as a security guard for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and, honestly, I don’t even get night access to a museum. These differences aside, there are certainly some parallels between my experiences as a museum intern during these last two weeks and those of Ben Stiller/Larry Daley, as chronicled on the big screen.

The Mission:

As the summer intern for The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I spent my first few days in the galleries to familiarize myself with the museum’s collections and holdings in the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian fields. My primary project for the summer involves creating an online database for the museum’s extensive Byzantine coin collection, which includes over twelve thousand coins. In the field of numismatics, Dumbarton Oaks has become associated with excellent scholarship and is renowned for its coin catalogue, The Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection (commonly abbreviated as DOC). My area of focus for the online database is to catalogue the Byzantine coins acquired after the publication of these DOC volumes.

The post-catalogue coin entries, which fill seven binders, currently reside next to the published DOC volumes.

The post-catalogue coin entries, which fill seven binders and will be entered into an online database, currently reside next to their predecessors: the published DOC volumes.

A Charismatic Cast of Characters:

Although I’m not interacting with Teddy Roosevelt or the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, I do work with incredible individuals in the museum. As a small and intimate department within Dumbarton Oaks, The Dumbarton Oaks Museum has such a welcoming atmosphere and kind, thoughtful employees.

In addition to my real-life colleagues at The Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I also interact with a whole other host of characters on a daily basis. Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin collection would not have been possible without the generous donations of various individuals. Thomas Whittemore, the founder and director of the Byzantine Institute, gifted his collection of some three thousand four hundred coins to Harvard University in 1950. At Harvard, Whittemore received the Harry-Potter-esque position of Honorary Keeper of Byzantine Coins and Seals; his collection remains in Cambridge but was included in the DOC volumes. Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin collection expanded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s due to donations from the Hayford Peirce Collection, Philip Grierson’s personal collection, an anonymously gifted collection, and the Leo Schlinder Collection. Since the Blisses generously provided for future museum acquisitions, the Byzantine coin collection has continued to grow since the 1960s and is now viewed as one of the most comprehensive Byzantine coin collections in the world.

One of Philip Grierson's handwritten entries for two coins from the reign of Emperor Justinian I.

One of Philip Grierson’s handwritten entries for two coins from the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565).

The Tools:

Every good museum security officer has a trusty tool belt with all the essentials: walkie-talkie, flashlight, etc. For me, it’s no different: I require my own special equipment. Magnifying glass: check. Numismatic reference catalogues: check. Patient and helpful curators to answer my endless list of questions: check. Ability to decipher handwritten notes: work in progress.

In order to compile an online database for the coin collection, I refer to a series of binders with handwritten notes for each and every post-catalogue coin. Grierson himself and Cécile Morrisson, the former and current Advisor in Byzantine Numismatics at Dumbarton Oaks, respectively, compiled seven binders that meticulously detail the post-catalogue accessions, including everything from their inscriptions and iconography to their comparanda in the collection. As the intermediary between these prominent numismatists and the general public, I have the task of transcribing, re-presenting, and disseminating Grierson’s and Morrisson’s excellent scholarship on Dumbarton Oaks’ holdings in Byzantine coinage.

DOC Page

A page from the first volume of the DOC.

Adventures In and Out of the Museum:

Like a security officer, I like to get a lay of the land. Indeed, I have received some exclusive access during my internship. Having ventured through the Main House’s labyrinthine basement, I gained access to the museum’s Coin Room, which includes two vaults that house the majority of the Byzantine coin collection. It was incredible to handle these coins and to see them up close. The experience gave me a better appreciation for the medium and a better understanding of considerations such as weight and diameter.

Just as in Night at the Museum 2, I traveled to (a different part of) Washington, D.C. to recover a beloved work of art. Specifically, I accompanied John Hanson, the Assistant Curator of the Byzantine Collection, to the Hillwood Museum. We were acting as couriers to assess and bring back a Byzantine coin that had been loaned to Hillwood for their recent exhibition, Passion of the Empress: Catherine the Great’s Art Patronage. Since the exhibition had ended the weekend before, I was able to see firsthand the deinstallation process. Cases were completely empty, there were no placards or signage, and I even heard the security alarm blare when one of the museum cases was opened. During my time at Hillwood, I met representatives from other lending institutions, including The Walters Art Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. John and I had to complete a condition report on Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine coin and then transport the coin back to the museum. I’m sure our taxi cab driver had no idea that we were transporting a work of art in his backseat!

The coin loaned to the Hillwood Museum for their special exhibition is a gold hyperpyron from the reign of Emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195). The coin's reverse depicts the emperor in imperial regalia on the left and the archangel Michael on the right.

The coin (BZC.1948.17.3531) loaned to the Hillwood Museum for its special exhibition is a gold hyperpyron from the reign of Emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195). The coin’s reverse depicts the emperor in imperial regalia on the left and the archangel Michael on the right.

While it has been just over two weeks since the start of the summer internships, my days have been replete with daily challenges, extraordinary people, and new adventures. I am greatly looking forward to the rest of my internship; it’s sure to be a blockbuster summer at Dumbarton Oaks!

About Me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard University where I intend to study both the Classics and art history. I have a particular interest in Greek and Roman sculpture as well as in the oeuvre of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


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