I had a chance to visit the Smithsonian today, but despite some rarities, the coins failed to impress. The new "Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian" sequel was a bit of a disappointment compared to the "original." So too is the "sequel" of the late, great numismatic display at the Smithsonian. The old display took up several rooms and featured coins from all eras, and many cultures. It inspired generations of youngsters (me included) to get interested in numismatics. Unfortunately, this old display closed before the museum was recently renovated.
Now, a new display has taken its place, but it has shrunk to a few panels, featuring mostly American coins. There are several quite historically important ones, including patterns for the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece and the never released $50 "Half Union." There are also some neat computer graphics, including a virtual "Ms. Liberty" who morphs into the Standing Liberty on the Saint-Gaudens gold piece. Still, this is pale reflection of the collection as a whole which holds over 1.6 million objects. See: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/numismatics/
This, of course, is a blog about cultural property issues. From that perspective, I could not help but think how all this just underscores the utter fallacy of one of the claims of the archaeological community. There are many, many million historical coins around. Only a relative few can be publicly displayed in museums at any one time. Private collectors are thus essential to preserving and displaying historical coins, whatever one might hear otherwise that museum loans from source countries should somehow substitute for private collecting.