Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.

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It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

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