Time – a friend, an enemy, but either way, a constant – can only be measured, not controlled, at least not yet.

You will be transported back in time at the National Heritage Museum to a place – and time – when time was read, measured, honored and fought.


An exhibit of clocks, watches and other time-telling devices spanning nearly 300 years are not only functional but reflect beauty and status, and often, generation, telling not only time but also a family history.


“For All Time: Clocks and Watches from the National Heritage Museum,” includes 95 clocks and 22 watches spanning about 1700 to 1930, and are part of the museum’s permanent collection.


Each piece says something about craftsmanship, tools and materials used to make timepieces during a certain period, and the role time played in daily life.


The exhibit begins with the colonial days, when the cycles of nature – including the moon, sun and the tides -- played a significant part in marking the time and the passing of seasons.


In later periods, ornate and skillfully made time pieces could reflect a house hold’s wealth, as seen in the tall clock case made by Benjamin Willard.


The Industrial Revolution changed man and machinery, and the way clocks and watches were made – as well as the relationship to time. The early 1900s saw a spur in demand for the portable watch, with soaring increases in the manufacturing of pocket watches – so people on the go could literally take time with them.


By the early 20th century, many Americans owned several clocks, and displayed them throughout their houses, as they became a more prosaic item of necessity and convenience.


Many of the clocks are from the collection of Ruth and Willis R. Michael of York, Pa., among them a 19th-century French clock featuring a female figure whose arms point to the time.


Some of the various clocks are adorned with images speaking to man’s age-old ambivalence about time; some bear likenesses of mythological images such as Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses charged with moving time on its course.


The devices illustrate our need to keep time as a mundane function of daily life; a handy kitchen clock helps a homemaker know when food is done cooking.


But some pieces pay homage to the moon, sun, and stars and planets, the most ancient way of keeping time.


It may strike a poignant note to see these varied means of telling time that do nothing else – no ring tones, no date calendars, no photos to download. Most of them also require the viewer to actually know how to tell time.


Standing in the quiet exhibit hall, a visitor can feel time’s steady progress, as two stately clocks – both dating from the 1700s, and both still working – tick away the seconds as they have for more than two centuries – and counting.


It’s like the sound of the cosmos and a haunting reminder of one’s place in time that has inspired so many wistful songs, as well as great works of fiction.


It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be reminded of tales by H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury or Octavia Butler, warning of unseen consequences of altering the past or future – and of making a plaything out of time.


And, just in case you, like them, feel inspired to write something about time, elegant cardstock comment sheets are available, asking visitors to share thoughts such as an experience arriving late or early.


One visitor wrote, no doubt speaking for many harried folks: “I would want a device for overwhelmed people, whereby they could stop time.”


Another – possibly a child, but it’s not clear – offers a charming drawing of a sort of owl clock, which mysteriously bears the imprint, NYC.


Because time doesn’t stand still, that skill may or may not move forward in the future. For now, viewers can see for themselves and judge the meaning of time – even if they find time these days to be a precious commodity and as hard to come by as the rarest grandfather clock.


Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at msmith@cnc.com.


 


If you go


“For All Time: Clocks and Watches from The National Heritage Museum”


When: Aug. 15 through Feb. 10


Where: National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Road, Lexington.


Admission: Free.


Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m.


For more information: Call 781-861-6559 or visit www.nationalheritagemuseum.org.


 Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at Gate House Media New England. E-mail her at msmith@cnc.com.