Yahoo! Exclusive: National Currency Museum's Raewyn Passmore marks the penny’s demise with a ‘Centimental Journey’

The museum has mounted an exhibition of the evolution of the penny in Canada from the 1600s to the presentCanada's penny started its long goodbye this week as it was officially withdrawn from circulation and businesses given the green light to round cash sales transactions to the nearest five-cent increment. The last penny was minted with great fanfare on May 4, 2012.

So the National Currency Museum, an arm of the Bank of Canada located in its Ottawa Sparks Street headquarters, figured it was a great time for a "Centimental Journey." The museum has mounted an exhibition of the evolution of the penny in Canada from the 1600s to the present, when a penny saved ends up in a jar on the dresser. The show opened Jan. 15 and runs until July 8 and admission, as with the rest of the museum, doesn't cost a penny.

Yahoo! Canada News chatted with museum curator Raewyn Passmore about the penny's significance and graphic designer Matt Paquette, who assembled it, including creating a massive eight-by-seven-foot mosaic of the one-cent coin made up entirely of pennies.

Yahoo! Canada News: When did you decide it was a good time to mount an exhibit on the penny?

Raewyn Passmore: Shortly after we received it (the last penny) from the Mint. It was struck by Jim Flaherty, the minister of finance, in May of last year. That summer it was transferred by the Mint to the National Currency Collection. That was made public at the time and so people were coming to us about the coin, if we’d received it yet, where was it, could they see it? So we realized there was an interest on the part of the public in the end of this era, so we put together the display.

We included the very last penny but we also selected a number of historical Canadian pennies, one-cent pieces, to show the evolution of the coin in Canada. But we also chose some foreign coins that circulated in Canada before we adopted the decimal system in 1857. We’ve got an American cent from the 19th century, we’ve got a half-penny from the 18th century and we’ve got a French liard coin from the 17th century. Those all circulated in Canada before we got our own currency because there was a shortage and the people used what they could. But they had an idea of value that these coins were adapted to, so they were really the precursor to the penny and one-cent coins that we know today.

[ Related: Final penny photo-op with Jim Flaherty cost $56,000 ]

Yahoo! Canada News: What’s the theme of the exhibition? Is it the penny as a key marker in the evolution of Canadian currency?

Passmore: The display is showing the evolution of the coin. We tried to indicate that historically it was a much more important coin than it has become lately. It no longer has very much buying power and that’s the reason it’s being eliminated. But in the past it was not only the foundation of our currency system in that a dollar is based on one hundred cents, but it also had a lot more buying power. It was the most common coin in circulation, probably the one coin that people used most often, even within living memory.

I was talking to a colleague of mine who remembers when he was younger being able to get three hard candies for one penny, or a box of matches for just a penny. You used to be able to buy a lot more with the penny. I think that’s reflected in the way it’s worked its way into our language and culture. There’s so many phrases in the culture; put your two cents in or a penny for your thoughts. People wear penny loafers. There’s such a variety of things in the culture that reflect the importance in hour history.

Yahoo! Canada News: Do you think we’re going to notice the cultural loss with the penny’s demise over time?

Passmore: I think that we’ll probably hold on to some of the idioms that are familiar to us but they will gradually lose their meaning. One example is people used to refer to something costing two bits but very few people know what a bit is. Two bits is 25 cents and that comes from the Spanish pieces of eight being cut into eight pieces, so two of those pieces made up one quarter of the coin. That phrase, you still sometimes hear that referral to “shave and a hear-cut, two bits,” but because we’re not familiar with the currency it’s referring to, it’s lost some of its meaning. So I think that’ll probably happen with the penny. The sense of the phrase will probably stay but the actual reference to the penny will no longer be around.

Yahoo! Canada News: Have you got much traffic through the exhibit so far? What are people saying?

Passmore: We have. We’ve had a number of people come in just to see the penny, just to see it. They’re very taken with the mosaic. People have been having their pictures taken in front of the mosaic and then they go to look at the coin. From what I’ve heard from our guides, people are really keen. There’s a real desire in our society for the genuine and the real. People want to know, ‘is this really it, is this it that I’m looking at right now?’ And hopefully as well they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the broader story behind the penny.

Yahoo! Canada News: Last question, and I’m going to put you out on a limb a little bit. The whole debate about what’s on the penny: Is it a maple leaf or is it a sycamore?

Passmore: As far as I know it’s a maple leaf (chuckling). Although it was designed, the initials that you see on the penny (designed in 1937) are K.G. and that stands for Kruger-Gray, a British sculptor engraver at the Royal Mint in England who did the design. He might not have had a maple leaf right at hand (laughing) but as far as I know it was definitely intended to represent a maple leaf, and they did previously. The designs have changed and ever since the first were struck in 1858 they’ve always have maple leaves on them.

[ Related: As last Canadian penny stamped out by mint, here's what you can do with the copper coin ]

Yahoo! Canada News: How many pennies did you need to put that together and where did you get them?

Paquette: About 16,500 and change, if you'll forgive the pun. Basically the approach I took for it was, if you take a look at it there’s debossed (flat-surfaced) parts and there’s embossed (raised in relief) parts of it. So I took the took the approach of getting lighter-coloured pennies for the embossed parts and using the darker, tarnished pennies for the debossed parts to provide the contrast. The new pennies we ended up getting from the Winnipeg Mint.

Yahoo! Canada News: And the older ones?

Paquette: We had a United Way drive and once they had a decent amount of pennies collected the museum purchased the pennies that they collected from our internal department that was responsible for the United Way collection and then used those to make the mosaic.

Yahoo! Canada News: How long did it take you to actually put it together?

Paquette: I had to do it a couple of times digitally first to make sure it worked. I built the thing on the computer in a graphics program. I laid out the lattice work of the pennies and kind of superimposed a semi-transparent image of a penny on top of it and basically changed the colours of the pennies I needed to, to make the image. Once I had that all laid out the way I liked it I kind of transposed every row of pennies from my computer mock-up onto an Excel spreadsheet and once I’d done that I used that spreadsheet to build it again from scratch digitally. It worked, which I was happy to see. That was my last dry run before I built the whole thing in real life. Once of the guys built the backing board for me and I started laying it out in real life. All told, I think the thing took between 120 and 140 hours.

Yahoo! Canada News: So once you had a digital template it was easy to put it together?

Paquette: Yeah, because I had the spreadsheet that I was going by. There’s 146 lines, I think, laid out in like a honeycomb pattern. Every line was was made up so many dark followed by so many light followed by so many dark and so on and so forth until each line was complete. I’d lay the whole line out, drop a whole bunch of glue dots on a line on the board and kind place each penny on there and cross my line off on my spreadsheet and do the next one.

Yahoo! Canada News: Did you have any mistakes?

Paquette: I had some help along the way. My 13-year-old daughter helped me with with a decent amount of it over the Christmas holidays and weekends, and I had another friend of mine help me out here and there. Every now and then we’d catch ourselves making a mistake. One time we ended up duplicating a line and not realizing it until a couple of lines later. that was probably the biggest mistake that we made.

[ Last week's one-on-one: CSA’s William Harvey outlines role of Canada’s asteroid-hunting satellite ]

Yahoo! Canada News: What happens to it after the exhibit’s over? Would you keep it up permanently if it’s popular?

Paquette: It’s a possibility, I’m sure. I’m not really sure what’s going with it yet. It’s only been up for a few weeks now. Once July comes I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of possibilities. I certainly think it’s going to stay within the bank in some way, shape or form.

Yahoo! Canada News: Before I let you go, I wondered how you feel about the demise of the penny. This has been quite a labour of love for you guys to do this. Does it take your mind off the fact that an important piece of currency is disappearing forever?

Paquette: Yeah, I guess it does a little bit. I’m just turning 40 this year so it’s been a large part of my life growing up. I remember collecting pennies when I was a kid to go to the corner store for some penny candy or whatever you can by for 25 cents in pennies. If you were to ask me for the day I finished the mural, I’d tell you I was happy to see them go.