Re: NY Times Article on our Watch & Clock Museum

Clint Geller

Gibbs Literary Award
NAWCC Star Fellow
NAWCC Member
Jul 12, 2002
Pittsburgh, PA
Link to the NYT article

Below is the text of an e-mail I sent to my colleagues on the Museum Committee this AM, which I have edited (mostly to remove typos).

I found the NYT reviewer's remark that the museum seemed a bit "insiderish" to be both interesting and a bit ironic, since many NAWCC members, including myself as it turns out, have long felt that the museum does not provide enough detailed information concerning the museum's exhibits. As one example among many which I could have chosen, there is a watch dial on permanent display in which images of chess pieces appear in place of the regular hour numerals, and the name "Paul Morphy" appears in the center, in place of the usual Waltham logo. Probably even most American watch collectors who see this dial don't realize, if they even happen to notice the dial at all, that it once graced a gold watch, a Waltham Model 1857, which was presented in 1860 by the members of the Manhattan Chess Club to American chess player Paul Morphy of New Orleans upon his arrival in NY. He was returning from a triumphant tour of Europe where he defeated all challengers and was crowned the unofficial chess champion of the world. Paul Morphy was a greater celebrity in his own time, and he stood higher above his peers, than Bobby Fischer in his! He was also a very colorful character who ended his days tragically in an insane asylum. Museum visitors are given no inkling of this interesting story, even though one wouldn't even necessarily need to be a horologist to appreciate it. Horologically speaking, this same dial is significant because the reverse is signed by the Waltham dial room foreman who painted it. Signed artwork is rare in American horology, especially on watches, and Webb signed dials are exceptionally rare. The exhibit signage gives no inkling of this fact, either. I know that the dial is signed only because the dial was discussed in an NAWCC BULLETIN article a very long time ago.

Sadly, the above is very far from being an isolated example. I could easily list others. However, the purpose of my post is not to criticize. It is to identify a problem and to offer a solution. Pocket watches have always been difficult to display adequately in a museum setting, both because of their small size and the fact that one is challenged to exhibit the movement, the dial and the case of the same watch all satisfactorily at the same time. Important technical features of watches are even smaller than the watches themselves and often may only be viewed satisfactorily with the aid of magnification. Providing signage which satisfies both knowledgable, and information hungry hobbyists as well as casual vistors is also a major challenge. Many of the same issues occur with the museum exhibition of clocks as well, but they are perhaps most acute with watches. This issue should be of particular concern for our museum, because the NAWCC Museum has an unique relationship to a community of collectors, the NAWCC, which includes many highly knowledgable individuals who expect more from their museum than the kinds of exhibits which might satisfy casual visitors. At the same time, as the NYT review underscores, we must deal with the reality that most visitors to our museum know little about horology and they can be easily turned off by unfamiliar jargon or a surfeit of detail.

So what to do? Well, we live in the computer age, even though that fact may not be readily apparent to visitors to our museum. What I am suggesting is that there could be a display screen with a control panel (or perhaps a touch screen) in each exhibit area. The front page of the display would have small thumbnails of each item on exhibit with short few-word descriptions underneath. Touching the thumbnail could bring up a new screen consisting of one, or perhaps several larger images of the exhibit item, allowing the visitor to see parts of the item which may not be visible in the physical display, along with a one or two paragraph description of the item and its significance. There could be a highlighted tab entitled "More" on this screen, or perhaps several tabs entitled "history," "technical details," etc. Touching a tab would bring up new screens containing more detailed historical and/or technical information. Additional screens containing even more detailed information could be embedded behind these, ad infinitum. In the case of the Morphy dial I mentioned, an interested visitor might, if they so chose, follow a sequence of touch screens to a brief history of Paul Morphy, etc., and to a discussion of the kind of watch the dial appeared on. Statistics could also be recorded on how often visitors visited each page, providing valuable feedback, over time, to both the display developers and the exhibit designers. Links could even be provided to the many excellent wiki articles which now exist on our website, directly connecting this terrific resource and NAWCC member effort with our museum! In this way casual visitors would not be encumbered by the deeper layers of detail, but those hungry for it would find it there. With more limited resources, Chapter 174 very successfully enhanced the watch displays at both the 2002 and 2006 national seminars with computer imagery and informative printed catalogs.

Why do this? Well, for one thing, it might get a lot more NAWCC members personally invested in our museum if they saw an opportunity to contribute their expertise to it in some tangible way. Creating the kind of tiered electronic "signage" I am proposing would create such an opportunity. Second, electronic images would greatly enhance the visitor's experience by providing larger and more close-up views of interesting features, as well as features which cannot be seen at all in the actual physical displays.

This idea would require money to implement, and a lot of work to create the content. However, it is the kind of project which might inspire the NAWCC membership, which is a unique resource of our museum, to contribute both their money and their time and expertise. I for one would be willing to contribute my own time in such a project if it were adopted. External grants could also be sought.
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