World Coins

Royal Mint opens visitor 'Experience' center

Editor's note: This is the first part of a story by Coin World London Correspondent John Andrew about his visit to the Royal Mint Experience, the new visitor's center. The original story appears in the June 20 issue of Coin World.

It is quite appropriate in the year the Royal Mint Museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of its foundation that the United Kingdom’s mint should open the Royal Mint Experience, a purpose-built visitors’ center on its 35-acre site at Llantrisant in Wales.

Given the size of the visitors’ car park, the Royal Mint is expecting this to become a major tourist attraction, not just for numismatists, but for anyone interested in history or who simply wants an insight into one of the country’s oldest institutions. 

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After completing a sneak preview of the experience the day before it opened to the public on May 18, the number of parking spaces is not over-optimistic.

The first things one sees are the high wire fences topped with a continuous loop of barbed wire surrounding the site. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking they had taken a wrong turn and were approaching a prison. Given the nature of the Royal Mint, it is not surprising that security is high. Up until recently the Treasury Store at the site held up to £90 million of coins waiting to go to banks.

However, since production of the new £1 coins began, the store has been dramatically increased so that it can additionally hold up to 1.5 billion of these coins, which will go into circulation in March 2017. Add the mint’s bullion trading service and one can appreciate the high security.

A pleasing single story newly-built edifice came into a view. A sheep, or at least a sculpture of a cartoon-like quadruped with a woolly coat, was there at the entrance to welcome everyone to the visitors’ center. 

It was a welcome antidote to the foreboding barbed wire. Just to the right of the main entrance was the Royal Mint’s “penny Gromit sculpture.” This certainly further set the tone that this was going to be a fun day out for all the family as opposed to a “dusty museum” experience.

This is not the first time that the Royal Mint has been open to the public, but the Royal Mint Experience gives visitors unprecedented access. 

New space better than past access

That stands in contrast to the private visits that have been allowed in the past. 

One such visit, on Feb. 18, 1661, was recorded by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited to see Charles II’s first coinage, which was hammered. 

Pepys remarked, “[it] is strange to see, how good they are in the in the stamp [ie die], and bad in the money for lack of skill to make them.” 

Pepys was advised that Pierre Blondeau the Frenchman, whose machinery had made Oliver Cromwell’s milled coinage, would soon be back. Pepys saw a demonstration of Blondeau’s “method of making this new money” on May 19, 1663.

Toward the end of the 19th century the Royal Mint Museum had an exhibition of part of its collection viewing by the general public. In 1904 the New Museum with 25 showcases opened to the public, but it was dismantled 20 years later. 

Students and bona fide numismatists have been able to arrange private visits to the collection and some private tours of “the factory” were allowed for interested parties. While these ad hoc arrangements worked well, there was no general public access.

Although Dr. Kevin Clancy, director of the Royal Mint Museum, proposed a visitor’s center to the Royal Mint Board about five years ago, mint officials did not begin to look at the proposal in earnest until 2012.

Slowly the project began to gain momentum and it became clear that a potential major tourist attraction was emerging in South Wales. 

The Welsh Government provided a grant of £2.3 million toward the project’s overall £7.7 million cost.

The mint anticipates up to 200,000 paying visitors per year, and will be open all but three days each year. 

“I had no problem with deciding how to showcase over 1,000 years of coin-making history and the craftsmanship as well as the innovation for which the Royal Mint is known internationally, but how to deal with the factory was a different matter,” Dr. Clancy said. “Did you bus people around the complex, or was there another way?” 

Striking coins is a noisy business and the furnace area is hot — throw in health and safety and there has to be another way. The problem was solved by dividing the area into six zones, including views of the minting process. 

Viewing by zones

Zone 1: The Royal Mint and the community — this looks back over 1,000 years of history to explore the origins of the Royal Mint, its link with the Tower of London and its move to Wales.

Zone 2: The Royal Mint and the world — here visitors find out more about the coins and medals the Royal Mint has produced for more than 100 countries worldwide.

Zone 3: Making money — here is the place to learn about the detailed processes, design and the skills involved to produce a coin. 

Zone 4: The other side of the Royal Mint — here visitors look at the fascinating military, sporting and commemorative medals the Mint has produced over 1,000-plus years.

Zone 5: The meaning of coins — this explores the many different roles coins play in our lives such as being symbols of luck and good fortune.

Zone 6: Coins and collecting — here visitors discover more about coin collecting, a hobby that captivates people of all ages.

It should be noted, however, that visitors do not travel through the zones in sequence.

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