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Silver Swan Completes its Voyage

Enchanting automaton returns to the Bowes Museum

As the enchanting Silver Swan travels home after its headlining spot at the Science Museum’s Robots exhibit, we caught up again with Matthew Read ACR for his reflections on this spectacular conservation project:

20170327_142018_0.jpgThe Silver Swan Automaton is a 250 year old, London made wonder of the world, normally displayed at The Bowes Museum, county Durham.  This complex object recently journeyed to London to headline the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Robots’, brainchild of Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford and curated by Ben Russell.

As an Accredited Conservator, this project immediately jumped off the page as exciting CPD; bringing together many elements of modern conservation practice within a dynamic environment.  My history with the Silver Swan goes back to a major overhaul and documentation of the machine in 2008. 

The multi-media Silver Swan consists of thousands of individual components that include 18th Century hollow glass rods, paper-thin silver neck rings, and three clockwork motors. Whilst the Silver Swan is a beautiful and rare dynamic object capable of charming thousands of international visitors, it also represents significant conservation challenges and risk. As part of a wider team, conservators help manage, balance and justify the benefit of use of an historic object with wider costs including inevitable damage through use. This is particularly pertinent in the case of dynamic objects that are inherently unpredictable.

Today, public impact and reach forms a significant and colourful part of our work.  It is essential to champion the importance of access for all to the museums, heritage and arts space.  With a footfall of over 60, 000 visiting ‘Robots’ within the first few weeks, and digital platforms reaching tens of thousands more, there was a real buzz in the air throughout the loan.

20170130_152517_0.jpgMy personal motivation was to bring subject specialist knowledge to a flexible interdisciplinary team, deliver our product safely, control costs, and meet an immovable deadline; the opening night of a major new gallery!

It took conservator Karen Barker, Science Museum Senior conservator Kate Perks and myself, two weeks of disassembly, packing for transportation, reassembly, and fault diagnosis to prepare the object ahead of the major international press launch on 7th Feb, 2017. 

Kate also kindly shared her experience:

20170327_164203_0.jpg“It was an absolute pleasure being involved with the Swan.  I first heard about it in 2008 when it was on the front cover of Icon News.  I was a student at the time and wondered if I would ever get to work on something so magnificent, and 9 years later I got the opportunity!  Working with Matthew Read from West Dean and Karen Barker of the Bowes Museum over 5 days to get the Swan ready for being on gallery and performing gave me the time to properly get to grips with the intricacies of the three separate mechanisms.  I was able to understand how delicate and finely tuned it was in order for it to run successfully, taking two days of trial and error just to get it to run correctly.

I feel very privileged to be one of the few people who was able to give it life each day​

I ran it once a day through Monday to Friday for six weeks as part of the Robots exhibition and had an approving audience who would gasp and applaud each time, then bombard me with lots of questions at the end, full of awe that it was still working after so many years.  As the weeks went by the Swan became a little slower and the water became a little less eager to start moving so I could never properly relax just in case it did decide that this would be the day it would stop working.  Fortunately, that day never happened and with a great sense of relief, but tinged with sadness, I took it off gallery so that it could be returned to the Bowes Museum in time for Easter.  Two days were spent dismantling it and carefully packing it up into its crate and then it was collected and returned to the North.  Everyone who saw it running at the Science Museum will remember its grace and beauty and I feel very privileged to be one of the few people who was able to give it life each day.”

This project was a real highlight of years teaching

matthew_robots.jpgThe Silver Swan is a product of the age of European enlightenment. Objects like the Swan are important advocates for heritage, conservation and craft. Critically the Silver Swan offers a huge, cross-over appeal to diverse and international audiences. People may see the Swan as a beautiful object, but they can also discover new stories through the history of clockwork, the history of commerce and the history of science. This power of engagement is essential to encourage not only appreciation of dynamic objects, but the importance of craft and conservation. As an advocate of access and education, this project was a real highlight of years teaching at West Dean College, a unique space for this area of study and practice.

I’m pleased to share that West Dean College has a new Edward James bursary to support study of our FdA Historic Craft Practices – Clocks. The deadline is May 1st. 

Icon would like to thank Matthew Read, Kate Perks and Paula Moore for their contribution to this article.

Lead Image: Reproduced with permission of Bowes Museum
Image 1: Matthew Read works on Silver Swan; Reproduced with permission of Paula Moore / West Dean College
Image 2: Matthew Read and Kate Perks; Reproduced with permission of Paula Moore / West Dean College
Image 2: Kate Perks and Kaleigh Fuller; Reproduced with permission of Paula Moore / West Dean College
Image 3: Matthew Read at the Robots Exhibit; Reproduced with permission of Paula Moore / West Dean College


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