Getting to the heart of clocks conservation

Matthew Read, Clocks Conservation Programme Leader at West Dean College believes that bringing a clock to life deepens not only the understanding of the specific object, but adds a dimension to the visitor experience in museums and galleries. He will be talking at the prestigious Museums + Heritage Show at Olympia in April (29 - 30) and challenging the more conventional conservation view by looking at the benefits and risks of conserving and displaying moving objects to engage and excite museum visitors, rather than relying on hi-tech interpretation to provide a satisfying museum experience.

Conservators at West Dean College worked for three years on an automaton clock in the form of a Chinese Pagoda and standing at 3 feet tall. a rare musical clock made in London and exported to Beijing in the late 18th Century. The clock, made by foremost clockmaker, James Cox, around 1760, is part of the National Trust Collection at Angelsey Abbey which is famous for its important collection of clocks. Initial investigations revealed that the clock mechanisms were suffering from continuous wear and tear. The mechanisms for playing music and rotating three decorative 'pineapple' ornaments had become so delicate that conservators at the College agreed with Trust staff to incorporate digital technology to reproduce the music, rather than expose the clock to further duress. At the 12 and 3 o'clock strikes, a wonderful musical and visual display occurs with musical chimes sounding and jewelled flowers on the four different tiers of the pagoda spinning and their petals opening up.

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Challenges in conservation

The project team included was led by ICON accredited clock conservator Read and included Postgraduate student Brittany Cox, who carried out much of the conservation cleaning and maintenance of the object including preparation of the original project report. John Butt and Mark Record designed and prototyped and made the electronics elements of the new control mechanism and John Leonard who digitally recorded the original music.

"The challenge in conserving this historical clock was in making the digital drive movement to interface with the historic mechanism and without causing alteration, using traditional clock-making practices. It is important that new conservation work does not alter the original, historic features. The aim is to ensure that our work can be reversed at any time in the future to preserve the integrity of the object for future generations," says Matthew Read. "The Pagoda Clock project challenges the parameters of what is understood as conservation and puts West Dean College and the National Trust at the forefront of pushing the boundaries in terms of conservation of dynamic objects."

There may be a clue to the clock's prestigious history. Small strips of a Chinese late 19th century newspaper were found wedged inside the jewelled panels around the base sides of the clock in order to prevent movement. Further research is to be carried out to try to discover more. That's the wonderful nature of conservation. There's always so much more to discover.

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