Alumna manages collection of 1 million monetary objects at Smithsonian
When alumna Hillery York walked into her living center as a first-year student, she carried a notecard on which she had diligently mapped out her life plan. This plan included a career working with large animals as a veterinarian.
During her first year as a Laker, York's plans changed because she developed an affinity for history through her general education courses.
“Sure, I was captivated by the Hollywood glamor of Indiana Jones and the mysterious history of ancient Rome, but I had never seriously considered academic history as a career,” York said. “Honestly, had I not been encouraged to expand my academic horizons through prerequisite classes, I probably wouldn’t have willingly taken history classes. Instead I was laser-focused on a career I thought I wanted.”
York graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in history with an archaeology minor. Fast forward five years and the Walker native is the collections manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the National Numismatic Collection (NNC).
“I was instantly attracted to this collection because it is so diverse,” York said. “As I spent more time in the collection, I began to realize that these objects had a big story to tell and I was interested in helping to share that story.”
York is responsible for the more than 1.6 million monetary objects in the NNC’s collection, which include coins, paper money, checks, tokens and more. She is responsible for acquiring new objects, cataloging and classifying items, performing inventories and rehousing initiatives, preparing objects for display and tracking object movement throughout all departments.
“I am an advocate for these objects that cannot speak for themselves and am often called upon to make informed decisions regarding their care,” York said. “My job ensures these irreplaceable objects will be around for research and display for the next generation of museum professionals.”
Other objects found in the geographically diverse collection range from present day polymer banknotes and 7th century Greek coins to non-traditional monetary objects. One of her favorite items in the collection is a bit obscure.
“We have beard tokens from the reign of Peter the Great that are really wonderful,” said York. “During this time, you would have to pay money to have a beard and you would carry the token around with you as proof.”
York attributed much of her current career placement to the support from faculty and staff members in the History Department at Grand Valley who guided her when she chose to shift her focus to museum studies.
She achieved professional experience in a niche field while at Grand Valley through directed research classes, internships at Michigan museums, and developing content for exhibitions at the university. She was also a member of both the History Club and Archaeological Society.
“I am thankful every day that I had individuals who were willing to take on the extra burden of teaching me a field that is not typically offered at Grand Valley, as well as the time and effort they spent to make my career dreams a reality,” York said.