PHILADELPHIA: When Tom Jurkowsky joined the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia three years ago, he took the public tour, the same one launched in 1969 when the Mint opened at its current location.
Jurkowsky, director of public affairs for the Mint, was disappointed.
“It needed some help. It really didn’t tell the story,” he said.
He soon learned he wasn’t alone in this view. He saw a school group walk through the tour in under 10 minutes. He’s even gotten letters from disgruntled tourists calling the tour “embarrassing.”
Now the Mint has revamped the tour. The new tour area, which cost $3.9 million, occupies the same 18,000 square feet of space in a mezzanine and hallway with windows overlooking the factory as the old tour, but the experience is totally different.
The exhibit includes artifacts from the beginnings of the Mint, a multimedia display depicting the establishment of the first Mint, rare coins and collector pieces, and please-touch activities showing the differences between coins and medals. Artifacts include Peter the Mint Eagle, almost 180 years old, a mascot and the inspiration for coin designs. There was also the Mint deed signed by President Andrew Jackson, and examples of damaged coins that never entered circulation.
There is room in some parts of the tour area to add special or additional exhibits depending on available funding or public interest, Jurkowsky said. Some artifacts formerly on display are now in storage.
The tour is free. Hours through Labor Day are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The facility is one of two U.S. Mints open to the public, the other being in Denver. Philadelphia’s Mint is the fourth U.S. Mint and the largest coin factory in the world.
The Philadelphia Mint produces from 25 million to 30 million coins per day — pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar coins. Jurkowsky said he wanted to demonstrate how these millions are made as well as to show how coins reflect the values, customs and history of the country.
The process of updating the tour began with conversations with employees, some of whose families had previous generations working at the Mint. The Mint closed in January for the installation of the exhibit, which took about a year and a half to research, design and build.
Quatrefoil Associates, based in Laurel, Md., created the renovated tour, said Bernhard Mueller-Anderson, chief of solutions at the firm. More than two dozen of the Mint’s 500 employees were featured on the tour in photographs and stories.
“It’s all about the coins, the work that’s going on, and the building that it’s in,” Mueller-Anderson said.
The first level of the exhibit highlights the Mint’s history with artifacts from enormous bullion scales and coin presses to oversized coin design mock-ups sculpted by the Mint’s team of staff artists. Also on display are elaborate iron gates from the former Mint building in Philadelphia that operated from 1901 to 1968.
On the upper level, windows 40 feet above the production floor show a small portion of the sprawling 60,000-square-foot plant, and touch screens explain how 6,000-pound metal rolls go through a cookie cutter-like press that punches out coin-sized blanks, which are heated, washed and stamped on front and back. An inspector spot-checks each batch and the coins are machine-counted and poured into huge bags that end up in banks nationwide.
“The goal today is 8 million pennies in one shift,” said Joe Falls, head of coining operations for the Mint. The coins are stamped so quickly — for pennies it’s about 750 a minute — that they’re warm as they emerge from the stamping machine and fall onto a conveyor belt.
In the upper levels of the Mint, sculptor-engravers and medallic artists create the designs for circulating coins and commemorative products, which include coins and Congressional Gold Medals.
Jim Licaretz, a medallic artist who began working at the Mint in the 1980s, is a classically trained sculptor who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Ideas for designs come to him from colleagues, private citizens, and public officials. He uses a computer-aided graphic design to refine them.
“It’s just like working in clay,” he said as he demonstrated different techniques using the program’s handheld tool.
Visitors will be able to glimpse what Licaretz and other Mint artists do through displays of coin sculptures, which are turned into the dies used to imprint the blank, flattened circles of metals into coins.
Looking at the floor of the Mint, visitors are reminded that it is a factory. Machines move rolls of flattened sheet metal from which metal circles are punched out. Workers wear steel-toed boots, protective eyewear, and earplugs. Conveyor belts and chutes send coins raining down into bins. After being packaged into one-ton bags made of heavy-duty fabric, the coins are sent to Federal Reserve Banks for distribution.
Levels of security and safety procedures separate the average tourist from the Mint employee. Going into the Mint, all are asked to pass through a metal detector and send bags through an X-ray machine. Those who travel to the factory floor, such as employees, pass through heavier security on the way out. Anything metal — glasses, shoes, belts, keys — must be removed to check for coins.
The tour also captures the everyday aspects of coins — how they are stuffed into pockets and coin purses, and left at the bottoms of bags. Coins and the Mint are part of American history, Jurkowsky said.
“Coins touch everybody,” Jurkowsky said. “They’re part of our every day, and we take them for granted.”
The country’s oldest and largest Mint, the Philadelphia facility sees about 250,000 visitors annually — many of whom expressed their disappointment with the old exhibition space, officials said.
“We think people will be pleasantly surprised,” Jurkowsky said. “This is a completely different experience from what they’ll remember.”
Find out more at www.usmint.gov/mint_tours. The Associated Press contributed to this report.