Specialist conservators and curators to assess Silver Swan
Specialist conservators and curators to assess Silver Swan

Specialist conservators and curators to assess Silver Swan

4 - 8 October 2021

A team of conservators and curators from distinguished institutions across the UK will be at The Bowes Museum next month to assess the Silver Swan.


Visitors will be able to see the horologists at work from the 4th to the 8th of October, as they pool their expertise and knowledge to come up with a variety of possible long-term maintenance plans and the best way forward to conserve the Silver Swan for the future.


Senior Conservator, Matthew Read, will lead the group of five visiting conservator-curators, as they partially disassemble the incredibly fragile 248-year-old musical automaton.


They will explore its mechanical condition, investigate possible ideas for its redisplay, interpretation and digital interpretation as well as look at the training required for its future care.  It’s hoped that the week will be a catalyst for a new knowledge exchange among experts in the global automata and horological sector.


From Tuesday, 5 October, the conservator-curators will hold a half hour daily question and answer session at midday throughout the week, where visitors will be able to quiz them on their work.


There will also be two live debates on Zoom which anyone can join, free of charge.  In the first on Wednesday 6 October from 6 – 7pm, members of the public can put a question to the panellists as they discuss the automaton, its conservation, curation and future.  Questions can be sent ahead of the discussion to: jane.whittaker@thebowesmuseum.org.uk  Tickets are available from the Museum’s website: thebowesmuseum.org.uk


There will be a second Zoom debate on Thursday 7 October at 2pm, where young people and locals are encouraged to join in an informal discussion about what the Silver Swan means to them.  The conservator-curators will explain how it works and explore how it could be displayed in the future. Questions or comments can be sent ahead of the discussion to: jane.whittaker@thebowesmuseum.org.uk.  Tickets are available from the Museum’s website: thebowesmuseum.org.uk


Filmmakers will be on hand throughout the Swan study week to document the insights and observations to create a film highlighting the discussion around the different processes involved in the Swan’s maintenance.  This film, once completed, will be on show in the Museum and on the website and will be used to promote the Swan and its importance to a global audience and  potential donors.


The conservator-curators taking part in the week are:


  • Matthew Read.  Senior Conservator.  Matthew is a clockmaker and conservator who has worked with The Bowes Museum since 2008 when he performed a full disassembly and maintenance on the Silver Swan.  Matthew has previously worked as Assistant Curator and Conservator at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and with museums and heritage institutions including the National Trust, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford and historic houses.  Matthew was the Director of The Bowes Centre until 2019. Today he maintains a wide portfolio of activities from clock repair and conservation services to printed and digital content creation.


  • Daniela Corda, Horology & Scientific Instruments Conservator at the Royal Museums Greenwich. Daniela’s current position involves caring for their working collection, which includes the Harrison Sea Clocks and the Greenwich Time Ball.


  • Anna Rolls is the Curator of the Clockmakers’ Museum and Archive and is based at the Science Museum in London. She has previously worked at the Royal Museum Greenwich and trained with the British Horological Institute and holds a Master in Conservation Studies.


  • Dale Sardeson has an MA in Conservation Studies and works a clock conservator in West Sussex, both as a freelancer and as part of the team at JE Allnutt & Son in Midhurst.


  • David Rooney is a writer and museum curator. He was formerly Curator of Timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum, London.


  • Seth Kennedy is an antiquarian horologist who specialises in the repair and restoration if antique pocket watches, both the mechanisms and the cases.  Much of his work is carried out using traditional tools and techniques.



In 2023 the Museum plans to mount an exhibition celebrating the Silver Swan’s 250th Anniversary by exploring its creator John Joseph Merlin. 


The Swan dates from 1773 and first astonished crowds in 1774 when it was displayed in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer.


The Museum’s founders, John and Joséphine Bowes, originally saw the Swan shown by the jeweller Harry Emanuel at the Parish exhibition in 1867 before buying from his Paris shop in 1873.  They paid 5,000 Francs (around £200) for the iconic object, around 10% of its original asking price and the most money they spent on any object in the Museum.


The American novelist Mark Twain also saw the Silver Swan at the exhibition in 1867 and described it in his book “The Innocents Abroad”:


‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'


Made from solid silver, it is life size replica of a mute swan and weighs 25 – 30 lbs. 


Sitting on a bed, or stream, of 141 twisted hollow contra rotating glass rods measuring up to three feet long, with a number of silver and bronze fish, surrounded by 99 silver leaves, the swan plays six different tunes and each performance is around 42 seconds long.


In all, the swan has around 700 major components, excluding fixings and screws, and several thousand in its whole.


Dr Jane Whittaker, The Bowes Museum’s Collections Manager, said: “We are delighted to be able to bring together this group of specialists, including acclaimed author, David Rooney, who will help the museum shape the Swan’s interpretation and care for the future.  The Silver Swan requires considerable care and conservation and we hope that this study week captures the attention of experts and people who may wish to support its future.”


The funding for the Swan Week has been generously provided by an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant.




Notes to editors:


  • The Bowes Museum was created over 100 years ago by an extraordinary couple, John and Joséphine Bowes.  Together they built up the greatest private collection of fine and decorative arts in the North of England and constructed a magnificent building to house them in.  The collection contains thousands of objects including furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and many other items covering an extensive range of European styles and periods. 
  • The Bowes Museum receives a core funding grant from Durham County Council and as a Major Portfolio Museum receives support from Arts Council England. Arts Council England is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2018 and 2022, we will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country. www.artscouncil.org.uk
  • The Bowes Museum has undergone major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, One NorthEast through the County Durham Economic Partnership, English Heritage, Northern Rock Foundation, The Monument Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, The Foyle Foundation, The European Regional Development Fund, DCMS/Wolfson Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund, Designation Challenge Fund, The Shears Foundation, The Richard and Suzanna Tonks Family Fund at County Durham Foundation, Durham County Council, The Friends of The Bowes Museum, The Headley Trust, Sir James Knott Trust, Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust, Fenwick Ltd, Mercers Charitable Foundation, Welton Foundation.
  • The Bowes Museum is a member of the Discover Durham partnership of attractions. Our commitment is to promote Durham as an exciting and vibrant group travel destination and to provide the travel trade with a professional and knowledgeable service: hotline number 03000 262626, www.discoverdurham.co.uk





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