December 23, 2016

REVIEW: Numismatic and philatelic exhibitions at The Ukrainian Museum


The Ukrainian Museum

Some of the items on display as part of the numismatic and philatelic exhibitions presented recently at The Ukrainian Museum in New York.

NEW YORK – From September 11 to November 27, honoring the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, The Ukrainian Museum hosted not one, but two, complementary exhibitions of collectable pieces of official history issued by independent governments of free Ukraine.

The larger exhibition, “In Metal, On Paper: Coins, Banknotes and Postage Stamps of Independent Ukraine, 1991-2016,” was curated by Dr. Yuri Savchuk, senior research associate at the Institute of History of Ukraine at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NANU).  The exhibit itself was organized by The Ukrainian Museum, along with the National Bank of Ukraine, Ukrainian State Enterprise of Posts (“Ukrposhta”) and the Institute of History of Ukraine at NANU.

The parallel exhibition, “Money, Sovereignty and Power: The Paper Currency of Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-1920,” focused on paper money only, and was based on a traveling exhibition curated by Bohdan Kordan, professor and director of the Prairie Center for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage (PCUH) at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, and organized by the PCUH, along with the Ukrainian Museum of Canada.

Together, these two exhibitions showcased monetary and philatelic instruments from two prominent periods of independence throughout Ukraine’s history. They are part of a history spanning several millennia, which also includes:  the coins produced in Greek and Roman colonies along the Black Sea, including the appealing Olbian “dolphin money”; Cimmerian and Scythian “arrow money”; coinage of the Celts, Goths, Sarmatians and other tribes peregrinating through Ukraine; the coins and original hryvnia (essentially ingots) of Kyivan Rus’, as well as the Kingdom of Halych-Volhynia and regions; coinage of the Golden Horde and Crimean Khanate; coinage and currency of Poland and Russia during the Hetmanate and occupations; the philately, coinage and banknotes, including various local issues, from Ukrainian territories during Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires; the local stamps issued by the “Zemstvos” during the Russian Empire; the philately of Carpatho-Ukraine and Western Ukraine; the philatelic and numismatic issues of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1919-1922; local currency issues from the collective farm scrip throughout the Soviet era and later; stamps and monetary issues under the occupation of Hitler’s National Socialists; non-postal philately; issues in Ukrainian displaced persons and POW camps; Ukrainian themes on foreign stamps, coins and banknotes; postal stationery, “pattern” coins, medals, tokens, etc.

Also out of scope are the ruble control coupon issues from 1990 through January 1992, the National Bank of Ukraine control coupon issues from 1991-1996 and the privatization certificates from 1992-1995. The banknote section of the 1991-2016 exhibit starts with currency reform and the issuance of the new hryvnia, which, though conceived and initially printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company in 1992, was released September 1996, and the opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the hryvnia.  The philately and coinage includes issues from 1991-1996 denominated in kopecks and karbovantsi.  Perhaps future exhibitions can add to and expand upon the wonderful foundation established by these two exhibits.

As with all projects at The Ukrainian Museum, the displays, mounting and signage were laid out in a highly professional manner, rivaling that of any top museum in the world.  The lighting was also very well done – a challenge given the high albedo of shiny silver and gold coinage.

The exhibits are not geared to the advanced specialist, but to anyone interested in the history, symbology and semiotics of these official government creations during these two periods.  They present a broad survey of the banknotes, and in the case of the 1991-2016 exhibition also the coins and stamps issued during these two periods.  To a novice or intermediate collector with patience, virtually every item displayed is one which could be found on the market; there are no outright rarities, “proof” or “specimen” notes, essays, unissued items, errors, “pattern” coins or other items that might be unattainable.

The displayed collections are quite extensive and comprehensive.  The banknotes represented in both exhibits constitute more than half of all the different basic issues from 1917-1920 and 24 out of the 50 distinct issues from 1996-2016.  A total of 212 of the 700 coins issued from 1996 to mid-2016 and 50 of the over 1,500 stamps and related philatelic issues by Ukrposhta are represented in the 1991-1996 exhibition.  The 1917-1920 exhibition spans the output of the Ukrainian National Republic, the Skoropadsky Hetmanate and the Petliura Directorate, represented by issues of the Central Rada in 1917 (a quadrilingual banknote in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish), the State Treasury Notes, the emergency Postage Stamp Currency, Circulating Bond Certificates and interest coupons, State Credit Notes, State Treasury Notes and State Notes.

Each of the banknotes, coins, stamps and souvenir sheets is, in itself, a designed miniature work of art, and provides some reflection on Ukraine’s culture, its history, notable individuals and events, its heraldry, its national symbols.  Collecting such material opens a very interesting window into the zeitgeist of Ukraine throughout these two seminal eras.  The works of art represent the oeuvre of at least 50 artists who designed the coins, stamps and banknotes.  Among the notable artists are Volodymyr Taran, who not only designed several of the coins and stamps exhibited, but was also a chief designer and co-author of the project, and Heorhiy Narbut (1886-1920), Ukraine’s most prominent graphic designer.

There is a catalogue published for each of the two exhibitions.  The 1917-1920 exhibit is documented in a 58-page bilingual color pamphlet “Money, Sovereignty and Power:  The Paper Currency of Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-1920,” published by Heritage Press and available from The Ukrainian Museum bookstore for $10. It includes the bulk of the exhibit, except for certain items added (notably, some local currency issues including one overprinted by Makhno in Huliaypole, a unique moment in history where an “anarchist republic” had a monetary instrument).  The 1991-2016 exhibit is thoroughly documented in a large-format 224-page lavishly illustrated full-color paperback, priced at $50.

For those who were unable to see these two wonderful exhibitions, there is a hope that they will travel to further venues, or engage with active Ukrainian philatelists and numismatists to give you a personal tour of their collections, with the assistance of the two abovementioned catalogues, obtainable from The Ukrainian Museum gift shop (telephone 212-288-0110 or online at