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The National Museum of American History
"The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age."
Loitering at the entrance to the exhibit On Time at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), one immediately observes clusters of touring families keeping track of time. They glance at their watches, instruct children in lessons of punctuality, and declare that if they move quickly enough and "stay on time" they can see the entire Smithsonian in a day. 1
According to curator Carlene Stevens, the goal of On Time is to prompt these visitors to think about "the changing ways Americans have measured, used, and thought about time in the last three hundred years." On Time asks visitors to consider the big question, "How did we get this way?" How did Americans become so reliant on clock time? How and why have Americans come to measure time more and more precisely? Why have we accorded increasing importance to time? The exhibition team—Carlene Stevens, curator; Ann Rossilli, designer; and Howard Morrison, educator—used these questions to ground their reinstallation of the NMAH's large timekeeping collection in social history as well as in stories of technological and economic change from the eighteenth century to the present.
Collectors hoping to find a large and unmediated collection of clocks [End Page 142] from the Nation's Attic will be disappointed. 2 As the exhibition team explained, "On Time is not about clocks and watches in the traditional sense—that is, how timekeepers evolved through history. Instead the exhibit [uses] timekeepers in combination with a surprising array of everyday objects and images to examine how we came to rely on clock time in place of environmental cures and our internal body rhythms." 3 The NMAH's previous clock exhibit, installed when the museum was still the National Museum of History and Technology, was a traditional taxonomy of artifacts (row upon row of clocks) illustrating incremental technological change. As historian Steven Conn has noted, such taxonomies, developed in the nineteenth century, reinforced dominant ideas of material and social progress. In museums of science and technology taxonomic exhibits created an object-based epistemology that reified ideas of technological progress and determinism. 4 Overturning these exhibition methods, On Time illustrates vividly and with intellectual depth current ideas in the history of technology and museum interpretation that focus on social context and the varied cultural meanings of technological change. [End Page 143]
The exhibition team did not do away with the clock collection, but rather placed the artifacts within richly layered vignettes that explore the interrelationship between timekeeping devices and changing perceptions of time. The exhibit contains almost two hundred timekeepers, ranging from tall case clocks, almanacs, and stopwatches to alarm clocks, day planners, and digital watches. These devices share space with other artifacts that help explain the growing importance of keeping time, in ever more precise and standardized ways, over three centuries. No doubt the most unusual and provocative of these other artifacts is the large skeleton of Lexington, the swiftest racehorse in the mid-nineteenth-century United States and inspiration for the first mass-produced stopwatch that could split time into fractions of a second. Objects like Lexington's skeleton encourage visitors slow down, read the labels, and see the connections between stopwatches, speed, and the national interest in horse racing in the 1850s.
On Time employs a loose chronological framework that helps establish a sense of change over time. But the exhibition is not a forced march through history. Its chronology is organized into episodes highlighted by "provocative moments" in time and memorable artifacts that act as landmarks for these vignettes. Episodic divisions include "Marking Time" (1700-1820), "Mechanizing Time" (1820-1880), "Synchronizing Time" (1880-1920), "Saving Time" (1920-1960), and "Expanding Time" (1960- present). [End Page 144]
One of the most skillful interpretive techniques in the exhibit is the use of common artifacts to make abstract and historically distant ideas tangible and personal. 5 The exhibition...