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Swan Study Week 4th- 8th October 2021 The Bowes Museum #swanstudyweek

In the week beginning 4th October 2021, The Bowes Museum[i] gathered together some of the country’s leading curator-conservators for a week-long investigation of what is arguably, the world’s finest operational[ii] eighteenth century automaton, The Bowes Swan. This ground-breaking event, funded by an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant[iii], had a wide-ranging brief and dense schedule. The genesis of this element of a much wider consideration of Swan began thirteen years ago. In autumn 2008, as part of a wider programme of capital works and development of galleries, Bowes commissioned the first complete overhaul of the automaton in over forty years. This conservation project, led by Matthew Read[iv], raised and revealed, previously unrecorded areas of the mechanism for future investigation from both physical and philosophical perspectives. In the intervening period since 2008, these areas or ideas gestated through the process of a Master’s thesis[v] and many lectures and presentations to specialist and non-specialist audiences.

Seth Kennedy, Dale Sardeson and Daniela Corda discuss multi-function cam under the lens of a press photographer

The group gathered at Bowes for the study week comprised specialist dynamic object conservator-curators[vi] Daniela Corda, Matthew Read, Anna Rolls, and Dale Sardeson. This group was joined by antiquarian horologist and watch restorer Seth Kennedy[vii] and writer and curator, Dr David Rooney. The project was managed by Dr Jane Whittaker, Head of Collections at Bowes. The entire week was filmed by Howell Film[viii] of Barnard Castle and will be the subject of a documentary film to be published by Bowes.


Panellists relax prior to one of two livestream events via Zoom


A primary aim of the week was a skills and knowledge exchange. In terms of risk management, Bowes was aware that since 2008, the majority of the conservation maintenance and running repairs had been carried out by one conservator; Matthew Read. During the week, Matthew demonstrated many elements of the Swan and its operation including the present display context and expectations relating to operation. Visiting conservators were encouraged to get hands-on and soon began a partial disassembly of the machine which comprises three clockwork motors driving twisted glass rods simulating water, a pinned barrel music box playing on 12 bells and the main driving movement operating the automaton neck of the Swan. In terms of disassembly, the Swan’s silver casing is removed in three stages; the head casing, the 113 interlocking silver neck rings, and finally, the one-piece repoussé silver body. The body is, maybe surprisingly, empty of mechanism. All three motors are mounted below the glass waterline. With set-up power removed from all seven mainsprings, the next priority was to discuss mid-twentieth century alterations to the multi-function cam that controls the operation and attitude of the Swan’s neck. To remove the cam, the team carefully labelled, removed and packed a dozen or so of the Swan’s 141 inter-connected, contra-rotating hollow glass rods. During this process, we shared ideas, reinforcing, developing and challenging, in a high-energy, yet considered method that was to run throughout the event.

Curator-conservators Daniela Corda and Anna Rolls discuss the project with Bowes Chair of Trustees Peter Mothersill


Amidst the conservation investigation, television and press intervened to capture and promote. Wednesday evening saw the first of two livestream Zoom events[ix], recordings of which are now available on the YouTube channel of the Bowes Museum. This event was chaired by Dr Mark Westgarth, Associate Professor art History and Museum studies at the University of Leeds. The panel of six answered questions from the Chair as well as those from the two live audiences; in-house and Zoom.


The Enigmatic Vessel contributed significantly to "what is Swan?".


The level of productivity was kept high for the remaining part of the week with interaction with a Young Curators group, daily Q&A sessions in the public gallery, discussion around training and routes into profession, education, future display and much more. The week concluded with a fully re-assembled Swan and hand-over to the Museum’s Head of Conservation, Cecilia Oliver.


Much discussion centred around mid-twentieth century alterations to the Swan's 'brain' or multi-function cam.


Although the findings of the week will be kept under wraps for now, it is safe to say that this collective experience, extensively filmed and shared on social media, was in the experience of the participants, a highly productive first, stimulating and quite exhausting!


Independent conservator Dale Sardeson explains the multi-function cam to members of the public under the watchful eye of Dr Mark Westgarth

Special thanks to Arts Council England, The Trustees and staff of The Bowes Museum, Dr Mark Westgarth, Howell Film, Dr Jane Whittaker, Jess White, Alison Nicholson, Daniela Corda, Seth Kennedy, Anna Rolls, Dr David Rooney and Dale Sardeson.



Matthew Read





[i] https://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk [ii] Since covid pandemic, the object is presently displayed as a static object. Please see the website of the Bowes Museum for updates. [iii] https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/projectgrants [iv] https://www.clockmaker-conservator.co.uk [v] A revised and expanded version of the thesis is due to be submitted for publication 2022 in the Journal of The Institute of Conservation [vi] The term conservator-curator is used to describe professionals whose role includes both conservation and curatorial elements. [viii] https://howellfilm.co.uk [ix] Find recordings of these events by following this link https://www.clockmaker-conservator.co.uk/events or via the YouTube channel of The Bowes Museum
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