Coins, whether ancient or modern, are invariably small and usually highly detailed. We have about 60 coins on display in the exhibition Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, and they range in diameter from about ½” to about 1 ½”.
Despite their diminutive size, these coins play a large role in our telling the history of Sicilian culture from the 5th to the 3rd centuries B.C. Look closely, and you’ll observe several distinctively Sicilian innovations in coinage: Heads cast in three-quarter or frontal perspective, versus the traditionally flat profile view. Added signatures of the engravers (most ancient coins were designed anonymously). Scenes of chariot racing rendered with startling realism.
As the designer of this exhibition, I had to devise a way to put all these coins on display, so visitors could see and appreciate these important details. But coins present a number of unique challenges to the exhibition designer. Most other types of artwork have a “natural” method of display: paintings and photographs hang on the wall; sculptures sit on a pedestal; porcelain vases rest on a table or shelf. So what’s the “natural” way to display a coin? Placing it inside a pocket or purse might be the most authentic choice, but not the most viewer-friendly. A marble pedestal or gilt-wood frame might, on the other hand, be too exalted a setting for an object originally intended as an everyday medium of exchange.
These ancient coins pose further challenges, simply as three-dimensional objects that require a physical housing. Unlike modern coins, their shape is irregular: vaguely circular, with imperfections along the circumference created during their minting. If placed on a table, these coins would not rest flat on their side, due to the high relief of the engravings. Though we may try, the laws of physics prevent us from viewing both sides of a coin at once. (Some museums employ mirrors to circumvent this inconvenient fact.) Even if it were possible, the two sides of ancient coins almost never align by orientation. (That is, a coin showing the right-side-up view on one side will be upside-down or askew on the other side.) In short, ancient coins almost seem purposely designed to make life difficult for us exhibition designers.
Coins also come with their own terminology, beginning with the word for the collecting and study of coins: numismatics. In any Getty exhibition, our labels and wall texts are usually written in plain-speak, to be understood by laypeople like myself. But no numismatist worth a kopek would use the words “front” and “back” to describe the two sides of a coin; it’s “obverse” and “reverse,” if you please. Our goal, then, was to use such terms when necessary, with visual clues that help visitors understand their meaning.
So these are the design challenges we had to face before placing these 60 coins on view. It would take at least five or six posts to explain all the various solutions we employed! I haven’t even addressed the anti-theft measures or the controlled microclimates these coins require. Instead, I encourage you simply to visit Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome. If I’ve done my job well, all you should notice is the artistry and ingenuity of the coins themselves.
The exhibition Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome has been co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. It celebrates 2013 as the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, realized under the leadership of the President of the Republic of Italy.