The British Museum Clocks and Watches Gallery

Aged five, I’d be there on the brick floor of my gran’s scullery taking apart an old clock with a screwdriver. There were quite a few to choose from as one by one my mother’s half of the family died away and their priceless knick-knacks found their way to our terrace.

I still own one of them, a big-shouldered Edwardian job with a beautifully-tuned Westminster chime. It, and its smart 1930s brother that I picked up in an Oxford junkshop in 1991, both await the sort of better days that will allow me to get them fixed.

The Edwardian one went to Oxford with me, which must have come as a bit of a shock to the system after ninety years in Bedford’s Black Tom. But I propped a straw hat on it, gave it my loudest tie to wear, and it seemed to settle in.

Strangely enough, then, the old Clock gallery in the British Museum was a constant haunt of mine for years. It was a quiet, less frequented place with false walls and ceilings of brown carpet. Every fifteen minutes or so the inmates would erupt like a university town.

Then it closed. I waited and waited for the new refurbished gallery to open.  In September I moved to Edinburgh, and thought I’d never see it again.

But I spent last weekend in London, and, miracle of miracles, the new Clocks and Watches Gallery (in the Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery, rooms 38 and 39) was open and I could get back in among all my old friends.

The new gallery is a huge improvement, like most of the British Museum’s recent changes. You can trace the history of clockmaking at a glance now, and the watches have been pulled together into a single elegant case. More of the collection (of which the display is but a small proportion) is on display.

I was there at the weekend, which is the worst time to visit. On Saturdays, the Museum fills with people who are there purely because it’s on the tourist circuit. The new gallery was crowded with rubberneckers on their way to the swords and mummies. But the new layout deals with large numbers very much better than the old one: you could still see what you’d came for.

My sole gripe was with the (otherwise excellent and informative) captions. Time and time again, I was reminded that such-and-such a timepiece would have been seen only in the homes of the wealthy.

It’s true. But before comparatively recently – perhaps only since the reindustrialisation of Japan after World War II – just about every technological “early adopter” was rich and every horological innovation expensive. And these displays were all about innovation.

Even some of the most recent exhibits (I’m glad to see new acquisitions that bring the story up to date) come from the top end of the market.

The point is not about the wickedness of wealth, but about the arrival of mass-production, and I’m afraid the captions obscure the difference between the two. The sociology of time is a huge subject, not short on controversies (“Arab Time”, anyone?), and, with only this exception,  the gallery restricts itself wisely to the technological side of the story.

It’s a minor point. The collections are accompanied by the publication of two new books by the BM’s Curator of Horology, David Thompson. These are long overdue and excellent (Saul Peckman’s photographs are superb). I love clocks, but I’m no horologist, and both books, one covering clocks and the other watches, cater for intelligent outsiders such as myself very well.

All in all, a sensitive and difficult job has been carried out superbly by David Thompson and his team. To achieve so much in so little time is nothing short of remarkable. The Gallery is one more reason, and one of the strongest amongst many, to love London. I can’t wait to be back.

3 Replies to “The British Museum Clocks and Watches Gallery”

  1. Hayek’s writings make much of the point that many artefacts and pastimes start with the rich and then, thanks to the wonders of markets, order, liberty and the rest of it, become part of the lives of the rest of us. Naturally, one can’t expect the bozos of the museum trades to be sufficiently educated, or even inquisitive enough, to be familiar with the writings of so fertile a fellow as Hayek. Submarxist whinging is all you can expect, I fear.

  2. Plenty of my ancestors must have lived in turf huts on the moors – so I think markets are great.

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