The National Numismatic Collection’s East Asian Collection and How YOU can Help Preserve It!

By Emily Pearce Seigerman

Since 2017, the staff of the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) has been actively working to digitize its collection of East Asian currencies. By the end of 2019, there will be more than 11,000 new object records available online through the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. Each object will be ready for more in depth research by scholars and public accessibility via the Search Center portal, which can be accessed here.

The history of the East Asian collection is as old as the NNC itself. Several of the earliest donations to the collection were East Asian coins and paper currencies even before the collection came to the Smithsonian. In 1846 the fortune of James Smithson was used to fulfill his will, creating an outlet for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” through the formation of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1840 several well-known numismatic collections in Washington, D.C. merged into the National Institute—and by the founding of the Smithsonian six years later, many of these objects had been exhibited together throughout the District as a unit. The Institute’s collection was gradually transferred to the Smithsonian over several years between 1858 and 1883.

During these formative years, the collection received several large and important donations of Japanese material. One notable donation was a set of Japanese gold and silver coins given by the Japanese Ambassador Mori Arinori in 1871. A second pivotal donation was a set of coins and medals given to General Ulysses S. Grant by the Meiji Emperor during the General's travels to Japan. The collection was donated by Grant’s widow Julia Boggs Dent Grant and William Vanderbilt in 1886. The following year, the Smithsonian purchased the Horace Capron collection of Japanese obans. Perhaps the most formative addition was the collection of George Bunker Glover’s East Asian coins. Glover bequeathed his collection of 2,025 Chinese, Annamese, Siamese, Japanese, and Korean coins, amulets, and paper money to the NNC in 1897. The collection was considered at the time to be the most perfect collection of East Asian numismatic objects in the Western world.

The Smithsonian displayed much of the Numismatic collection in the Arts an Industries Building under the direction of Theodore T. Belote, Curator of the Division of History from 1906-1948. In 1914, Belote selected objects for “exposition” in 27 cases in the Building, 8 of which were devoted to Asia and Africa. By 1917 the displays had been updated to include more than 2,000 Chinese objects, many from the Glover collection. As the Smithsonian evolved and the numismatic collection moved to the Museum of History and Technology—now the Museum of American History—the NNC continued to grow its East Asian holdings. In 1966 it added the (large) coin collection of William Sebald adding a large amount of Chinese and Japanese coins and amulets. Throughout the 1970’s the NNC collected several large donations of Chinese paper currencies. Most recently in 2017 the NNC welcomed a donation from the Howard F. Bowker collection of East Asian numismatics.

In 2017, the NNC began the year-long process of digitizing more than 8,000 of these East Asian coins thanks to the Howard F. Bowker family and Michael Chou. The project illuminated several issues between the NNC’s collections management system and its ability to process and display of non-western language characters. The Digital Programs Office (DPO) of the National Museum of American History worked with the NNC to create solutions for some of these obstacles. One solution was the use of the Transcription Center to aid in the transcription and translation of non-western characters. By utilizing the linguistic expertise of the public, the DPO and NNC can collect the hundreds of characters necessary to authentically record the languages of East Asian currencies.

In 2018 the NNC began digitizing 6000 Chinese Banknotes dated from the Ming dynasty to the modern day. As we continue to make these objects digitally available online—100 years after their first display at the Smithsonian—we need your help with transcription! By sharing your knowledge and time through transcription and translation, you can help the Smithsonian care for a collection more than 200 years in the making.