New gallery for Clocks and Watches

The Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery

Opens November 2008
Room 38-39
Admission free

This winter a new gallery devoted to the display of its magnificent collections of Clocks and Watches will open at the British Museum. The measurement of time is something we nowadays take for granted, but the process and practice of marking time has come a very long way from its origins in the late medieval period. The new gallery will present the exciting and fascinating story of timekeeping and its development from the earliest church and monastic clocks to the innovations of the 16th and 17th centuries through to the advent of atomic timekeeping in the twentieth century.

The British Museum holds the national collection of horology, housing over 900 stunning clocks and 4,500 watches in its collection. Key examples will go on display in a central new gallery space at the top of the main stairs. The gallery will tell the history of timekeeping in a broad chronology, examining the changing technology of clocks and watches, the ways in which they work and were made, and their impact upon our society. Magnificent examples will show how clocks and watches became demonstrations of wealth and status prior to the development of a mass market in the 20th century.  

Beginning in the late 13th century, mechanical timekeeping developed as cathedrals and monasteries began to install the new clocks to announce the time both day and night. The earliest example on display is a mid-15th century spring-driven clock made in Burgundy during the reign of Philip the Good. Clocks became a much desired luxury with the introduction of spring-driven mechanisms in the 15th century, the gallery will include one of only two surviving examples of this kind of clock from this date. As technology progressed in the 16th century clocks began to be used a status symbols. Extraordinary clocks such as Hans Schlottheim’s amazing automated nef – a medieval galleon which moved, played music and fired canon and the truly spectacular mechanical celestial globe made in 1575 by Eberhardt Baldewein for the Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel were the envy of the age. The ingenuity of Galileo and Christian Huygens ensured the clock was transformed into an accurate timekeeper with the introduction of the pendulum in the mid-17th century. The ensuing period (until the early 18th century) was the Golden Age of English clock-making as Joseph Knibb, Thomas Tompion and George Graham honed their art. The gallery will look at innovations in timekeeping at sea during this period, how marine chronometers were essential tools for the work of George Vancouver and Charles Darwin. Bringing the story up to the present day, the gallery will take a brief look at how clocks have changed in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The gallery will also tell the story of the development of watches, from their invention in the early years of the 16th century to the radio-controlled watch of today. Many examples of masters in their field -  Ghylis van Gheele, David Bouguet, Thomas Tompion, Thomas Mudge, John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw will be on display. Watches by the great Parisian maker Abraham Louis Breguet’s can be seen alongside a watch by a celebrated modern master, George Daniels. Spectacular watches from the 18th century will contrast with mass market examples produced in the second half of the 19th century, and the contemporary quartz watches of today.

The gallery is supported by Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton or Katrina Whenham on 020 7323 8522 / 8583 or hboulton@britishmuseum.org / kwhenham@britishmuseum.org

For public information please telephone 020 7323 8000 / 8299

Notes to Editors:

  • The gallery opening is accompanied by the publication of a new book ‘Watches’. A fascinating and gloriously illustrated history of watches as timepieces and works of art. The book is published by British Museum press, priced £25.