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IN CONVERSATION WITHJANE DESBOROUGH, KEEPER OF SCIENCE COLLECTIONS AT THE SCIENCE MUSEUM

January 2024

? The Palace Museum

Jane Desboroughs interest in timepieces developed while she was Assistant Curator at the British Museum cataloguing various collections of clocks and watches. She studied 16th to 19th-century history at university, after which she gained experience working in museums and pursued a  Ph.D. on clocks and watch dials at the University of Leeds. In 2014, she joined the Science Museum as a Curator where she has been ever since.  Her passion for clocks and watches has grown over the years: I was cataloguing a vast array of 16 to 18th-century clocks and watches that had fascinating dials with calendrical and lunar indications on them. They were so remarkable. Their moving mechanisms make them seem alive.

? The Palace Museum

Jane is one of three Keepers at the Science Museum.  She is the Keeper of Science Collections, working alongside the Keeper of Medicines (Natasha McEnroe), and Keeper of Technology and Engineering (Richard Dunn). Jane manages a team of 12: We look after 23 collections that fall within the Science remit: clocks and watches, microscopes, weights and measure, chemistry, oceanography, physics, and earth sciences. Its a busy role but I enjoy supporting my team members. A typical day for me involves a lot of variety, responding to emails, and attending project meetings at different stages of advancement. I could be in a project meeting where we are right at the beginning, sharing post-it notes and discussing ideas, or meeting about a further advanced project where were tying loose ends. My afternoons could then consist of leading a VIP visitor to one of our galleries and showing them the objects on display.

Jane told us about the genesis of the forthcoming exhibition at the Science Museum, Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from Chinas Forbidden City: The idea for the exhibition officially started in 2018 as the Science Museum curators visited the Palace Museum in Beijing, though our director had been wanting to work with them for some time before then. Its been a wonderful collaboration; the Palace Museum generously provided us with these clocks and extensive research, and we were able to rely on their expertise. There are pieces in addition to the Zimingzhong including archival material from the Needham Research Institute and the British Library, and objects from our collection: one or two clocks, sundials, and horological tools.

Dr Jane Desborough is the Keeper of Science Collections at London’s Science Museum

Zimingzhong were collected by emperors for their combination of function and aesthetics: they can not only tell the time but also play music and display moving figures. As Jane notes: Some are over one meter talltheyre fit for an emperor. The show highlights this moment during the Qing Dynasty when there was a meeting of cultures, skills, and technology. Of the 23 clocks, Jane has two favourites: One of them is the country-scene clock. Its very complex with 13 moving figures, music playing, and it displays the time. My second favourite is less assuming, it was made in the palace workshops and has never been displayed in the U.K before. As part of its decoration, it has 9 bats on its case, which our research indicates means good fortune.

Much of this work and research was conducted with their exhibition partner, the Palace Museum: We were lucky to have access to experts about the Chinese dynasties. We needed many translation experts, and the import of these large objects involved lots of condition reports, transport agents, and paperwork. After years of waiting due to the pandemic, the clocks are expected to arrive in just a couple of weeks! The installation will be the priority from now until the show opens to the public on 1 Februaryhopefully, the audience will enjoy the journey back in time.

HFF supported Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from Chinas Forbidden City with a grant of ?50,000.