LONDON — Visitors to the Rosetta Stone or the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum may not realize that just beyond the main entrance and up an intimidatingly long stretch of stone steps is a lesser known display of clocks and watches, looked after by Oliver Cooke.
As curator of horology within the museum’s Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, Mr. Cooke manages the care, storage, display and conservation of a collection exceeding 8,000 pieces, some 200 of which are on show in rooms 38 and 39. He is also an occasional blogger on sites like the Antiquarian Horological Society and a bit of a watch-world YouTube star with a video on how clocks work (which is nearing 100,000 views).
In an interview by email and phone, Mr. Cooke discussed centuries-old and contemporary exhibits, the museum’s debate over acquiring a smartwatch and how members of the public can get his views on their own timepieces. His comments have been edited and condensed.
How did you become the museum’s clock curator?
I have always been fascinated by mechanisms and gadgets, including clocks and watches. I’d earned a degree in civil engineering and worked in that field and then in business systems. But around 2003-4 I was making a clock from a kit at home and a sibling, Vicky, saw how much I loved it and suggested that I should be doing it as a career. Seed duly planted. After studying clock conservation at West Dean College in the south of England, a job opportunity at the British Museum came up. It appears that my sister was right.
So your section at the museum traces the development of timekeeping?
What you see is just the tip of the iceberg. The oldest item on display is an astrolabe dated 1342. This is the earliest signed and dated European instrument. The museum does, however, hold much older horological pieces, dating from the 6th century B.C., including sundials and water clocks. The newest things on display are a kitchen battery-operated wall clock and a Sony bedside radio alarm clock that we bought new in 2008.
We are yet to acquire a smartwatch. Since timekeeping might be viewed as being secondary to their other functionality, their place in a horological collection remains under debate here.
Which side are you on?
I am happily dithering. I did buy myself one to play with it and get a feel for it. They are fitness monitors and remind you of appointments, but that’s not about timekeeping. As far as I can see they offer nothing new horologically and that’s where I’m coming from. But I’m sure we will get one because, if nothing else, they are called a watch. They are part of the story.
Of the pieces on display, what would you say are the Top 3?
Do I really only get to choose three? Well, there is the glorious table clock made by Thomas Tompion in London circa 1689 for King William IV and Queen Mary. Wind it up and it runs for more than a year, striking the hour, every hour, requiring more than 60,000 blows of its hammer.
Then there is the great nef, an extravagant table ornament and container used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, made of precious metals in the shape of a ship made by Hans Schlottheim in Augsburg, Germany, circa 1585. This model galleon once sailed the courtly banqueting tables of the Holy Roman Empire, with its organ and drum playing inside and automaton figures working up on deck, before coming to a stop and firing its guns at the assembled dignitaries — with blanks, we assume.
No. 3? May I suggest the rolling-ball clock, conceived by Sir William Congreve to be a breakthrough in timekeeping. It is, in fact, quite awful in this respect — we don’t even try to set it to time — but we love it all the same. With its zigzagging ball and tilting table, it captures the wonder of visitors like nothing else.
Do you ever worry that these treasures are a bit hidden?
I expect that few visitors come to the British Museum planning to see clocks and watches, but we are in fact rather well-placed, being near to the spectacular and popular Medieval and Sutton Hoo galleries. Passers-by can only be lured into our section by the sparkling and shimmering, ticking and chiming treasures — and once in, they stay.
But so much more is available to be seen and studied and that’s why we have the horology study room.
Oh? Where’s that?
It’s in what we call the basement, and in my view it’s the best room in the museum and where we store much of the collection. All this is available for members of the public to study — the collection is not intended to be hidden away. You can go online to find out what’s there and then ask to see it without the glass of the gallery showcases in the way.
The room has a large central table surrounded by clocks, watches and scientific instruments of all shapes and sizes. Occasionally something is in bits but we wouldn’t leave it that way for long to minimize the risk of losing bits. And we always have a sundial in the middle of the table.
Visitors can also bring in their clocks and watches and we will do our best to tell them what we can about them. Access is by appointment only via the museum website.
You spend your day surrounded by timepieces. Do you wear a watch?
I almost always have a watch on my wrist. I do, in fact, possess a big bowl full of watches. Each and every one has a reason for being there, but most are humble. I am privileged to be able to spend much of my life working with the collection here and so I feel no need to possess fine watches, indeed it would be futile to attempt to match it.
I choose one to wear each morning to suit the coming day. Maybe my Longines V.H.P. from the late 1990s when I am feeling sharp. Maybe my single-handed watch for a weekend (when five minutes doesn’t matter).
But my go-to “beater” is a Casio ProTrek. It is solar powered, so I know it will work. It is waterproof and as tough as nails.
Which one are you wearing now?
Recently I have been interested in the area of high-accuracy quartz watches and the watch I am wearing now, the V.H.P., employs temperature compensation and is rated to keep time within 10 seconds per year. To put that in context, a standard, noncompensated quartz watch might gain or lose 180 seconds in that period; a good mechanical watch, say, 1,500 seconds.
Timekeeping has, of course, long been a major concern of horological development and temperature-compensated quartz represents the pinnacle for watches, in this regard. However, few manufacturers now make them, probably since none of us really need that level of precision in our daily lives.