U.S. Mint gets serious about welcoming visitors

Posted: June 27, 2012

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."

On Tuesday, after six months of renovations, the Mint will officially open a new tour. Mint employees and their families were offered the first tour last weekend. Reporters got a look Wednesday, along with a behind-the-scenes view.

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 will be open to the public free.

Hours through Labor Day are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The facility is one of two U.S. Mints, the other being in Denver. Philadelphia's Mint, a five-acre operation at Fifth and Arch Streets, is the fourth U.S. Mint and the largest coin factory in the world. The first location was at Seventh and Arch Streets, after the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia in 1792.

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.

Quatrefoil Associates, based in Laurel, Md., worked for two years to create 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.

Visitors see the factory floor from 40 feet above and images and machinery on display, including the seven-step process of creating a coin.

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."


Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-4909 or dmcbride@philly.com

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