A few years back at a friend's wedding another guest I met there gave me two very unusual coins. Megan Shaw Prelinger, along with her husband Rick, had created an art project that involved leaving these coins to be found in places around the country. On that weekend, I went with Megan and another friend, Sharon Glassman, up to the Continental Divide, where we left one such coin. What's so special about these coins and why do they leave them in places all over? Here's what Megan and Rick have to say about the project:
Some sites have been chosen because they are rich with memory. Some mark the location of major or minor (but significant) historical or cultural events. Other sites are contested places - places where people have fought for ownership or control of land, resources, or communities. And we have chosen some places simply because we think they might reveal something about the evolving relationship between human beings and the world they inhabit or once inhabited.
The coins are meant to be found by anyone - residents, explorers, workers, tourists, and people who play at the sites where we have left them. We leave them in the hope that finders will reflect upon their meaning, contemplate the landscape where they were found, and ponder what hidden histories might be mapped there. We also hope that in future years, as the coins bounce in peoples' pockets and are twirled in their fingers, they will inspire reflection about landscape and history that is not limited to the site where the coin was found.
Like many observers, we see "landscape" neither as the work of artists or architects nor as a scene necessarily marked by the beauty of nature. Landscape to us means more than just natural landscape. It also means human landscape - the living, ever-changing, four-dimensional record of human life, work and leisure. "Landscape is history made visible," said J.B. Jackson (1909-1996), a cultural geographer who wrote many thoughtful things about how people relate to the places where they live, work, and travel. Our everyday landscape is largely unplanned and accidental. It may not be orderly or beautiful to every eye, but that does not give us an excuse to ignore what we are facing and move on. We are makers of the landscape around us, and the landscape we inhabit influences the shape of our lives and our view of ourselves.
We ask those who find a coin to value it in their own way, and at the same time consider how the place where they found it has been valued by others. Are land and landscape ultimately properties, commodities to be bought and sold? Or, in the final analysis, do they belong to all of us? How does an ordinary, everyday landscape like a highway or an abandoned industrial tract compare in value to a venerated historical site or a pleasant suburban neighhorhood? And who is it, anyway, that decides the value of the money we carry in our pockets and purses?
The phrase "Value Me As You Please" first appeared on tokens minted well before the American Revolution, in 1737. Samuel Higley, M.D., owner of the Simsbury copper mine in East Granby, Connecticut, minted copper tokens that carried the text "THE.VALUE.OF.THREE.PENCE." According to legend, local taverns started to dispute the value of his "coinage," as his pieces contained only as much copper as British halfpence. Dr. Higley responded by minting tokens inscribed: "VALUE.ME.AS.YOU.PLEASE / I.AM.GOOD.COPPER."
Megan Shaw Prelinger and Rick Prelinger collaborated to produce the coin, and plan to distribute it over a 10-year period, at the rate of approximately 1,000 coins per year. Megan made the drawings, which were then engraved into dies that stamped out the coin. Rick conceptualized the coin and wrote the text. We gratefully acknowledge the thoughtful and elegant contribution of Diane Bertolo, who designed the type and integrated it with the images. We also thank Marina McDougall and Awest for creating early drawings of what the coin might look like. We appreciate their help and kindness.
The coin is manufactured of "alloy 230," which is 85% copper and 15% zinc. It is 30.6mm in diameter, close to the size of the U.S. fifty-cent piece, and weighs 10.2 grams. It was minted in Monterey, California.
Recently, I went back to check on the two coins I left in New York City to see if they were still there. I'd placed one in a building on West 13th street: the LGBT Community Center. The other one I'd placed in the knot of my favorite tree, a Tupelo in a meadow in Central Park's Ramble. One is still there. The other one, well, such is the mystery of this art project. And like any creation, once the artist has let it into the world, who knows where it will go. The only thing I can say with any certainty, having been born and bred in New York City, there is no guessing what this city will look like in years to come. And the hidden history of these coins may well be as lost as the stories of the places I knew in my youth.