A History of Museum Victoria

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Collectors of Time

Richard Gillespie

Museum Victoria holds a significant collection of over 600 clocks and watches, dating from the seventeenth century to the present. It includes classic works in the history of timekeeping: a 1630s German table clock, beautiful watches by pre-eminent eighteenth century British and French makers, and accurate astronomical regulators. There are items of local historical significance, such as the No. 1 clock of the Victorian Railways, installed in 1858, and common items, such as domestic alarm clocks.

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Internal workings of an eighteenth century watch with intricate gold filigree work by Mudge & Dutton.
Source: Museum Victoria, History & Technology Collection. Photographer: Rodney Start

Incredibly, this diverse collection resulted predominantly from the passions and generosity of two men, neither of whom was employed by the Museum. Like several other collections, the horology collection owes its existence and breadth to a partnership between the Museum and independent collectors in the community.

Starting in 1920, John Askew, partner in the established Melbourne architectural and civil engineering firm of Twentyman and Askew, began loaning his clocks to the Industrial and Technological Museum. Prompted by an increased interest in science and technology during World War I, the Museum was actively renewing its exhibitions. By 1928 Askew had about eighty clocks on long-term loan to the Museum, with the intention that at some stage he would donate them. Clearly this arrangement was of great advantage to the Museum, as it provided a whole new area of display with minimal expense.

The loan arrangement equally gave the lender considerable influence over the Museum. In 1930 Askew wrote to the Trustees, noting that only half of his collection of 120 clocks was currently on display, the rest being in storage. He reported that he had been approached by an 'Interstate Museum' to borrow his supplementary collection, and that the unnamed museum was willing to provide extensive space for a new collection developed by Askew:

I now respectfully beg to enquire whether there is any possibility of my collection being allotted a similar space in your Museum, as my feelings are that I do not want to start another collection for an Interstate Museum necessitating further duplications while there is a possibility of concentrating on one, at the same time I do not feel inclined to keep on adding to a collection which is only being exhibited in part.

The gentle threat had its desired effect, and the Trustees assured Askew that space would be made available for the entire collection and for any additions. Throughout the 1930s he continued to loan items, and finally donated the collection in 1941. John Askew died in 1945, and in his will left an annual bequest which continues to fund the acquisition of clocks and watches for the collection.

Shortly after Askew's death, Melbourne watchmaker and jeweller Joseph Lowy began to loan and donate items. For more than thirty years Lowy developed a close working relationship with staff. Writing in his neat hand on his distinctive letterhead (J. Lowy, 'Distributor of Punctuality'), Lowy guided the development of the collection. He wrote to European makers requesting loans or donations of the watches and clocks that demonstrated the latest technological developments. He arranged for his old technical school in Karlstein, Austria, to make large models of watch escapements for the Museum's displays.

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