Posts with the tag: Museum

The Archivist’s Nook: Numismatic Teaching Tool – Catholic University’s Coin Collection

H197-1: Justin I – Gold – Tremissis; (Wt.) 1.21, (Mod.) 14; (Ob. Type) Bust, facing, wearing helmet with plume and diadem; (Ob. Legend) DNIVSTINVSPPAVC; (R. type) Victory walking, looking r.; (R. legend) VICTORIAAVCVSTORVM in ex. CONOB, 518-527 A.D. Byzantine. Research by CUA Greek and Latin Class in 2013.

The Catholic University of America (CUA) coin collection, part of the museum administered by the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, contains nearly seventeen hundred numismatic pieces, primarily from ancient Greece, the Roman republic and empire, and Byzantium, as well as medieval and modern specimens, including coins from Western Europe, Persia, and China. A Roman poet once said: “Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis” (whatever you want to teach, be brief),¹ so let us begin.

From the late nineteenth century to as late as 1938, there were more than twenty donations, some 1682 coins. With the exception of the Nablus series, the collection was acquired entirely by gift. One of the earliest donations came from Claudio Jannet (1844-1894), a professor of Economics at Paris who also wrote about American political and economic institutions. He was known to be an admirer of the United States and probably interested in the establishment of CUA, hence the CUA Bulletin 1894 description of him as one of the University’s best friends who had donated a large collection of Greek and Roman coins. This donation of 806 coins represents the largest donation of the entire collection. Another early addition to the collection was 72 coins from Professor Henri Hyvernat and Msgr. Paul Muller-Simonis after their trip to India, 1888-1889. Hyvernat traveled extensively throughout the world and donated hundreds of eclectic items to the university museum from five continents.

1058-1: Caesar – silver – denarius; (Wt.) 3.91, (Mod.) 20, (Die axis) 12; (Ob. type) Pontifical emblems: culullus, aspergillum, axe, and apex; (Ob legend) BLANK (R. type) Elephant r., trampling dragon; (R. legend) CAESAR (in exergue); (Mint) Moving with Caesar, 49-48 B.C. Late Republic, military issue. Research by CUA Greek and Latin class, 2010.

The Nablus Collection, numbering 178 coins, came to the university in 1927 from the Samaritan Community of Nablus, Palestine, then under British administration. Due to its unique nature as a coin hoard discovered during an archaeological dig, Rev. Romain Butin, curator of the Museum and a professor of Semitics, had to obtain written permission from the Governor of Palestine, and the Department of Antiquities, Jerusalem, to export the collection to CUA. There were also several other donations between 1916 and 1938.  In 1975, CUA archivist George Hruneni created a preliminary inventory of the coins. In 1977, New York coin dealer Alex Malloy examined the collection, stating the overall quality was not superb, but with many good pieces it would be a valuable teaching aid.  In 1987 a numismatist named John D. Mac Isaac reported that the Roman Imperial material was the overall strength of the collection, illustrating Roman art, economics, and political propaganda for the period 100 B.C. to 450 A.D. He also noted several coins he believed to be Greek forgeries and the presence of over 300 virtually illegible coins. The following year, Stephen Koob, an art conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, recommended improving the storage conditions of the coins. He also believed the collection would be a useful educational tool, providing tangible artifacts for the classroom, and, for some of the more valuable coins in good condition, as items displayed in exhibitions.

1058-669: Ptolemy I – Bronze piece; Head of Alexander the Great with horn of Ammon, wearing diadem, elephant’s skin and aegis. (r) Eagle with wings closed stdg. On thunderbolt with head turned (left). Egypt, 305-285 B.C. George Hruneni. Preliminary Inventory to the Coin Collections of The Catholic University of America, 1975, p. 46. Also, special thanks to Douglas Mudd of the Money Museum.

In 1991, volunteer students began transferring the coins from acidic envelopes and boxes to polyethylene sleeves housed in a series of binders to facilitate better storage and access. A student of Greek and Latin, Daniel Gordon, wrote a number of important notes on accompanying cards to individual coins in the collection. The coins are housed in the binders, usually ten (10) pages each in a covering box. Roman Empire coins dated 27 B.C. to 284 A.D., the accession of Diocletian, are listed as ‘early empire,’ those dated A.D. 284 to 476, the fall of the empire in the west, are designated ‘late empire.’ The first series contains the 806 coins donated by Jannet, collection number 1058, ca. 600 B.C.-1878 A.D., in binders 1-4. These are primarily Roman coins, but with a nice selection of Greek, Byzantine, Carthaginian as well as a few from Carolingian France. The second series has 31 coins donated by Grindell, collection number 2474, in binder 5. These are primarily Roman and Byzantine Coins, with one from Carthage. The third series has 115 coins donated by Pierre Court, collection number 2945, also in binder 5. These are primarily Roman coins. The fourth series, binder 6, has coins donated by Schrantz. The fifth series, binder 7, has coins donated by Ignatius Lissner. The sixth series, binder 8, has coins of poor quality from Luigi Gassi, designation no. 5281, consisting of 148 Roman, Greek, and Byzantine coins plus a no. 5282 Arabic coin. The seventh series, binder 9, has coins of the Nablus Collection. The eighth series, binder 10, has coins donated by Henri Hyvernat. The ninth and final series, binder 11, has miscellaneous coins donated by several sources.

1058-786: Louis the Pious – Christiana religio; Obverse Legend: +HLVDOVVICUS IMP, cross; Reverse Legend: +XPISTIANA RELIGIO, temple, 822/823-840 A.D. Carolingian France. Research in 2011 by CUA Professor Jennifer Davis, special thanks to Dr. Elina Screen, Fitzwilliam Museum, The University of Cambridge, and Dr. Simon Coupland, The University of Oxford.

In the past decade, Professor William Klingshirn of Greek and Latin has organized several classes of students for the purposes of examining specific categories of coins; learning how to properly weigh, identify and catalogue them; and consulting reference tools to compile new databases of portions of the coin collection for a more accurate inventory.² For more information on access, please contact lib-archives@cua.edu.


¹Horace (65-8 B.C.), Ars Poetica, 333.

²See the article by one of the CUA students: Lionel Yaceczko. “The Riddle of the Nablus Collection: An Unusual Hoard of Fourth-Century Roman Bronze Folles,” Studies in Late Antiquity 1.2 (2017), 173-203.

The Archivist’s Nook: Embodiment – Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera

Sample of Novak’s North African/Moorish/Al-Andalus image study for Lakmé

Joseph Novak was The Chief Scenic Artist of The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, from 1910 to 1952—an approximately 40-year tenure. His archival papers consist of a collection of artistic works and associated documents that were originally donated to The Catholic University of America’s School of Music to become a part of the Luce Library in 1976; however, the collection was housed, processed, and exhibited at the Mullen Library. The collection consists of approximately 500 sets of opera models, 100 photographs, 600 drawings, uncounted numbers of clippings, and associated documents produced by Novak. Among the many intriguing projects undertaken by Novak was his set and costume design for the 1932 revival of Lakmé —a tale of the Orient…

Embodiment: Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera.

In 2013, Gerard-Georges Lemaire wrote a compendium titled Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art. He opens the monograph with a meditative preface by Genevieve Lacambre who ponders: “Where exactly was the Orient that was so vividly depicted by the Orientalists?…we ought more accurately speak of the Orients”—a place of multiple iterations. The Orient is difficult to define because of the supernumerary of cultures that were swept up by Europe’s non-stop quest to capture the ontological essence of The East and to become the author of its authenticity. The Orient was an imaginative state, channeled by nearly the whole of Western society, across an astonishing temporal reach, in which “For over two thousand years the Orient has exercised an irresistible fascination over Western minds…” The Orient meant different things to different Western cultures and within each respective culture there was a great deal of intra-cultural variegation as to who and what were referred to as Oriental.

Orientalist art was the materialization of the push and pull between a Europe that was arrested by its profound fascination with the other and a Europe whose cultural mythos had set it diametric to the vast array of cultures that comprised world around it. These opposing energies engendered the desire to recreate other cultures through the visual arts and imposed a layer of cultural semantics through the establishment of a visual vernacular that was steeped in decadence and violence.

Orientalism penetrated the visual realm from fine art to advertising. This advertisement blends the emerging trendiness of art deco with the continuing rage for all things Oriental.

The orient was conjured by those who had visited the regions that unwillingly carried the pseudonymous “Orient” moniker and was remixed by those who had never visited beyond the borders of Europe. By the 19th century, Orientalist art entered a grotesque stage—a semiotic shift that arose in response to new geopolitical occurrences. European’s Colonial expansion had created a new impetus through which “Some of the first nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings were intended as propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule.” The striking paradox of the French artist’s use of the Orientalist genre to create sociological delimitation, was that Europe’s obsession with the Orient had driven its artists into a memetic state, wherein Europe began to see itself as the embodiment of The East: the owner of its peoples, its lands, and its luxuries.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that “Male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features)…” It was quite a twist, as Europeanized women began to appear as subjects in Orientalist works that were less about the patriarchal exercise of choreographing women’s sexuality and more about the prismatic renderings of whiteness and the subjugation of dark skinned persons. Whiteness had become an actor on the Orientalist stage, signifying a shift in the political attitude towards The East—from one of fascination, to one of possession and control. Darker skinned women began to be depicted as naturally born to please the European subjects in such works as the blandly titled Works Odalisque and Slave.

The desire to subvert other cultures while simultaneously consuming their artistic, intellectual, and cultural capital, in what The Metropolitan Art Museum notes as “…architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts, and textiles, which were increasingly sought after by a European elite”, is the precarious intersection at which Joseph Novak undertook the task of creating the world of Lakmé —an operatic revival of the story of an Indian woman who viciously gives her life—and by extension her nation—in the name of Britain, embodied as a solider. According to Lakmé ’s father, the British solder is an oppressor who must be expelled from the native lands; however, the fantasy transfigures British oppression by dressing it in drag and having it masquerade as a mechanism that can grant Lakmé  love, freedom, and power.  

How did Novak imagine an Orient that would match the gravity of the vocal, symphonic, and narrative spectacles of the operatic stage? Not only would Novak need to imagine an already imaginary world, he would have to play upon these contortions to manufacture the woman who would inhabit it—the singer Lilly Pons, a European woman, would have to become the fantasy, of the fantasy, of the fantasy– a perpetual, indefatigable figure who was without a past and without a future. A mythical other—embedded in a tortuous hierarchy of somatic servitude but blissfully trapped in her prison of sensuality, luxury, and the desires of Western men for her.

Enter the World of Lakmé…

One of hundreds of photos used by Novak to develop costuming for Lilly Pons (right) as Lakmé circa 1932..

The final 1931 Lakmé set featuring the cast with Pons seated center. Bottom from the left to right: Shwe Dagon in Burma; Ruins of the Al-Hakeem Masque in Egypt; The Moorish Architecture of the Great Mosque in Cordoba; Unlabeled. The final set for Lakmé is a fusion of Moorish and South East Asian architectures.

Click here to see a Pons performing The Bell Song from Lakmé, as was featured in the 1935 movie “I dream too much.” Apart from Pon’s brilliant Coloratura performance, in which she gave the audience everlasting life, the finalized Lakmé set can be seen, as well as, extras donning clothing that appears to be a fusion of Moorish and South Asian, as is consistent with Novak’s visual studies of North Africa, Moorish, South Asian, and South East Asian peoples’ textiles.