Wednesday 24 August 2011

What Kind of Question is "Who Owns Numismatics?"

We seem to be cutting to the core of the problem of the "US coiney" problem. It is beginning to emerge from the latest text to emerge from the ACCG stable ("Who owns Numismatics?") that a defining characteristic is in fact radical anti-academism. I suppose that should occasion no surprise in a group dominated by unqualified amateurs and commercial interests. However if we return to the original question, whether or not the brand of numismatics that indiscriminately uses decontextualised coins freshly surfaced on the market from "somewhere" can be considered as a discipline on a par with archaeology or other means of studying the past, such an approach is highly problematic.

ACCG coin dealer Dave Welsh in response to my earlier comments now throws out a question "who owns numismatics?". The logical connection between that and what was being discussed (I thought) earlier really escapes me, there was no discussion anywhere previously of "ownership", whatever the questioner understands by that. There is simply no coherence in the coiney's position which has shifted from day to day. besides that, I fail to see how claiming that "Numismatics is not and never has been defined or controlled by academia" but is "defined by [...] those who actually carry on its everyday business" really brings the author of that text any closer to showing that in the manner in which it is done in the US, coin collecting is a discipline which can claim to be on a par with others which have better developed academic traditions - which I thought was the point the ACCG coineys were trying to make (ACCG: Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism pp. 10-14 for example). I showed that in Poland, where I live and work and from where I write these words (through its position in the Academy of Sciences, in the universities and other cultural institutions), has indeed a firm place alongside others as an academic discipline. One equally valid in such a context as any of the others, including archaeology and ethnology/anthropology. This is to a large degree a development of the post War years in Poland; by contrast, the study of coinage, ancient and modern, in the United States seems from what ACCG board member Welsh is asserting to have the sort of structure as existed in Poland in the 1930s, or perhaps earlier. It seems it is this lack of structure which is at the root of the problems we seem to be having in communicating.

A fact that has only now struck me as of importance is the total absence in ACCG writings of any sign of a recognition of professional numismatic scholars in the US in statements such as:
The development of numismatics as a science is a result mainly of private collectors and their dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. When academia became aware of the value of coins as voices from the past, coin collectors and professional scholars found that they had much in common and worked closely together. Yes, that was a long time ago. What we see today is a bitter turf war between private collectors, independent scholars, museums, nationalist governments and archaeologists. What happened to the symbiosis?
What happened to those professional numismatic scholars in the US coineys' arguments? They are simply ignored.
Here the same:
...adversely affect private collectors, independent scholars and dealers in ancient coins – the infrastructure that has advanced numismatic knowledge since the eighteenth century
Part of the problem with his latest text seems to be that Welsh simply does not (or does not want to) understand what I have been saying about the existence and characteristics of a system recognising the importance of professional numismatic scholars. Things I have been saying here, let it be noted in answer to the very questions he himself challenged me to answer (so I think some of the comments on the coiney forums are rather unfair if they fail to take the origin of this exchange of views into consideration - not that coineys seem all that adept at seeing anything much in a wider context).

Whether or not "Mr. Barford's views to the contrary are unrealistic"(sic), the truth is that in cases like Poland (and I would venture not only) numismatics actually is a fully academic discipline and comfortably co-exists alongside others. Dave Welsh apparently does not accept the existence of professional numismatic scholars who do not sell coins is a "realistic" model, but it seems to work here.

Welsh apparently has travelled little in his numismatic scholarship and considers the US system of a "distributed discipline" to be the world norm, and cannot imagine that in other milieux other conditions apply. I therefore really do not see the point of the US coiney's comment "very few archaeologists or academics can by that definition be considered numismatists". Nobody, least of all me, said that "archaeologists were numismatists". What I did say is that where I work numismatists function normally within an academic environment alongside other related disciplines including archaeologists (which of course does not mean that there are no coin collectors or coin shops too). I really do not see where Welsh has difficulty understanding that, even though it may be outside his own personal experience as a US coin dealer.

If however we take Welsh's statement, that - in the US model - "very few archaeologists or academics can by that definition be considered numismatists", can US numismatists be considered archaeologists (i.e., those who study the past through the use and interpretation of certain types of material remains) or academics? Is this where Welsh is getting lost in his "ownership" issue, a matter of names? Surely the ACCG creed is that this is precisely what their brand of numismatics is and what it has to offer. I therefore must admit to becoming confused just what it is Welsh is trying to demonstrate or disprove here. It seems to me that Welsh is merely thrashing around here argumentatively and trying hard to fog the issues, and I really think if we attempt to maintain focus on and look deeper into the issue of the nature of numismatics as portrayed by the ACCG, it is their postulates which are taking quite a bashing as a result.

To come back to the odd title he chose for his piece, totally unrelated to anything we were discussing, one might remark that in his text Welsh in his post uses a medical analogy. I'd say the utter pointlessness of his title could be demonstrated by echoing the title: "Who owns brain surgery?"

Of course no discussion with a coiney would be complete without the accusation that the coiney is misunderstood, nobody understands coin collecting, "Nathan Elkins boldly attacks a discipline that he evidently does not understand":
Mr. Barford does not seem to understand that all real numismatists equate the word(s) "professional qualifications" with demonstrable knowledge of the source material, not academic rituals such as those he catalogues above.
If amateurs in the US consider being able to sort material into the right piles is the pinnacle of academic achievement in a discipline, good luck to them. They'll probably get invited to lots of academic coin-sorting conferences that way. This lack of understanding seems more due to the prejudices of the unqualified 'hands on' practitioners for formal education in general. The two are not of course not mutually exclusive, on the contrary. I do not know how it is in US institutes of higher education (but am beginning to form an idea), but over here a demonstrable knowledge of the source material is the only way to gain access to what Welsh dismisses contemptuously as "academic rituals". This certainly is well within the continental academic tradition. I wonder how Welsh thinks it is possible (in a central European institute of higher education in particular) to gain professional qualifications withOUT demonstrable knowledge of the source material? Mr Welsh has not taught in one, I have. The courses of archaeology (as indeed I think I made clear a few posts ago) are very much material-orientated as well as academic, I have no reason to believe that courses in numismatics, geology, meteoritics and a whole host of other subjects do not have a similar extensive practical element, working with the basic source material. Mr Welsh assumes otherwise, but that seems to be prejudice rather than based on any actual knowledge.

Finally, I really am getting fed up with this lose-headed kind of thing thrust into the middle of a text I am trying my hardest here to discuss rationally:
Like all but a relative handful of archaeologists and others involved in the pernicious campaign against private collecting of ancient coins...
For goodness' sake. I have just spent a few hours over the past few days tapping out here perfectly civilly and factually (and in answer to this guy's impudent questions) that archaeologists (yes archaeologists) where I come from work WITH numismatists (yes, numismatists), sit in commissions WITH collectors (yes, collectors), are NOT conducting any campaign against collecting of anything at all. The constant repetition of this type of provocative claptrap from coin dealers (mostly) is what is preventing any kind of a sensible discussion of the issues. What aim does it serve, if not to disrupt sensible discussion of the issues?

What is in reality the subject of a campaign Dave Welsh's own country is commerce in illegally exported coins. The 'campaign' is in fact a pretty half-hearted one and in fact rather than commerce only regulates initial import of illegally exported coins. But there is nothing else to these wild accusations. There are three and a half years of examination of these claims and writing here on this blog which lay open to examination and discussion the evidence that all the rest is coiney paranoia and conspiracy theory, not the real world.

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