What is a medal? Merriam-Webster defines medal as 1: a small usually metal object bearing a religious emblem or picture. 2: a piece of metal often resembling a coin and having a stamped design that is issued to commemorate a person or event or awarded for excellence or achievement. However, a medal can be much more than this. Medals are a record of the history, art, values and interests of a society. They are a tangible record of events, people and even the mindset of a country at a given time. This exhibit features medals produced with American topics or in the United States from the 17th century to the present day, using them to paint a vibrant picture of our nation's past and present through medallic art.
Modern medals were introduced at the end of the 14th century in Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance. They are associated with the rise of humanism and the celebration of the works of mankind that occurred during that period. Inspiration was drawn from the ancient past, especially the officially-issued coins and medallions of ancient Rome that celebrated rulers and their accomplishments. With the dawn of the Renaissance, realistic works of art – especially portraits – began to be commissioned by wealthy rulers, aristocrats and merchants to celebrate themselves, their families and their accomplishments through sculpture or painting. At the same time a new medium of expression developed in the form of the portrait medal which could be reproduced in large numbers for wide distribution among friends, family and subjects in a way not possible with paintings or sculptures. Since that time, they have spread through Europe and the world, expanding their subject matter to cover nearly all human activities.
American medals have been used to celebrate individuals, record events, and as an indicator of power and prestige of individuals or the nation since their inception during the American Revolution. Before the Revolution, European medals already celebrated North America and the region that would become the United States. The US Mint acquired the technology to strike large medals by the first decade of the 19th century, replacing American reliance on foreign mints. By the mid-1800s, homegrown medals of all sizes were produced privately for individuals and organizations. They were produced as works of art, awards for competitions, and to celebrate activities of social clubs and events ranging from agricultural shows to coin conventions or political campaigns, social activism or political satire – roles that they continue to be used for today. Explore how medals can tell these stories, and gain an appreciation for their beauty and value as part of our legacy and as history in your hands.