A small, one-room museum in the Guildhall Library building, silent save for the ticking of innumerable timepieces, the Clockmakers’ Museum is a haven in London’s busy business district. The museum - the oldest of its kind, and open to the public since 1874 - holds over 600 watches from England and Europe, as well as clocks as old as the seventeenth century.
From the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers’ struggle for their Royal Charter of King Charles I in 1631 - with the effect that no person was allowed to sell clocks unless they were a member of the Company - to present day developments, the evolution of clockmaking and its vital importance to British society is explained in detail. There are portraits of famous clockmakers, including Thomas Tompion, “the Father of English Clockmaking,” among many others. There is also a section devoted to marine timekeeping, including a half-size replica of John Harrison’s 1770 clock that helped solved the problem of determining longitude at sea - and eventually won him the £20,000 prize offered by the British government. In the present-day section, there is an example of the smallest screw in existence - a mere speck under a microscope, of which 47,000 could fit in a thimble.
A word of caution, however - this museum has a specific history to communicate, and that is the history of the Clockmakers’ Company, an active City of London craft guild. If you are looking for explanations of how clocks work, or for insight into the science of clockmaking itself, this museum is probably not the place to go - which is a bit of a shame, as a few explanations would make the museum more accessible, and would break up the long panels of text.
This museum would not be particularly appealing to young children, either, but is geared to an older audience with a broad interest in history, and it is undoubtedly a must-see for anyone with an interest in antique clocks and watches. Information is presented in a most straightforward manner: twenty-two logical, chronological panels and display cases.
Perhaps the museum’s traditional presentation and seeming resistance to flashy technology is a testament to the history of Clockmakers’ Company’s itself, and its unwillingness to produce cheap, inferior goods. Its adherence to traditional principles seems echoed by the exhibition’s clear and exhaustive information, and precisely arranged items. But this resistance, the museum informs us, is precisely what led to the disappearance of clockmaking as a major British industry: the demand for cheaper consumer goods won out, and European factories took over. Will the Clockmakers’ Museum suffer at the hands of interactive digital displays and mobile-phone friendly exhibitions? I suspect there will always be a place for museums that purely offer knowledge and conservation, not entertainment: while traditional clockmakers may no longer have mass appeal either, they yet retain their skills, and nowadays put them to use in restoration, repair, and research.
The Clockmakers’ Museum is a charming place to visit, full of dainty miniature ladies’ watches and imposing grandfather clocks - and I couldn’t help but grin at the quaint notice on their website: “The museum may be closed (briefly) from time to time for re-winding and adjusting the clocks.” Best to check ahead if you are making a trip to the area!