Tall Case Clock circa 1826; movement made by Franz Böhler Sr., case made in Lexington | Collection of the Coleman family

With the Speed Art Museum’s high-profile exhibitions like “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism and high-concept shows likeBreaking the Mold: Investigating Gender,” one could be forgiven for forgetting about the museum’s Kentucky Collections. But starting this month, the Speed will begin a yearlong focus on the art of Kentucky.

First up is “Making Time: The Art of the Kentucky Tall Case Clock, 1790-1850.”

Curated by Scott Erbes, the Speed’s curator of decorative arts and design, this first-of-its-kind exhibit features the distinctive grandfather clock. Erbes took some time to talk with Insider about what makes Kentucky clocks so striking.

Despite the breadth of the aforementioned Kentucky Collection, this exhibit mostly features clocks from a number of sources outside the Speed’s collection, including temporary loans from private collections.

Scott Erbes | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

“So many collectors collect for themselves, but they tend to — the best ones — collect for posterity, too, so they want to see what they’ve preserved for others to enjoy,” he says.

Other clocks have been handed down through several generations as heirlooms, not art pieces. Some literally came from people’s grandparents. Erbes notes the importance of the relationships and memories these time tools evoke.

“They keep quite good time by and large, but they also take on a whole other dimension of memory,” he explains. “They both keep time and preserve time.”

These clocks measure much broader relationships as well, the kind that helped form the economic and trade issues of yesteryear. The clocks are products of multiple specialized artisans. Carpenters, steel smiths and artists all had to work together. The artisans and artists were often collaborating across oceans, making clocks with a mix of American and imported European components.

The full view of the Böhler clock

“So it’s the story of the local and the national and the international economy in which Kentucky played a big part. I mean, that’s what fascinates me about these objects, that they bring all of those strands together in a single form,” says Erbes.

At the time, America wasn’t just importing goods, it was importing people, and those immigrants helped make America and Kentucky what it is today.

“Folks who came from England, there was a fellow who came from Ireland and ended up in Elizabethtown,” says Erbes. “So there’s also that story of movement that is so much part of Kentucky’s history. You know that Kentucky was the first Western frontier, and so people were coming here.”

The “movements” — the internal mechanisms and pieces — of three different types of clocks will be laid out for viewers to see so they don’t have to rely on their imaginations to show them what’s going on inside those tall cases.

Many clocks back in the day served yet another purpose — in addition to its bells striking a short tune on the hour, the movements of some clocks included entire songs.

“This one clock … the movement has this gigantic musical movement that was made in the Black Forest area of Germany,” says Erbes. “We’ve recorded one of the songs it plays so people can hear what a musical clock sounded like — which was really almost a form of entertainment.”

Tall Case Clock circa 1810; case made in the shop of William Lowry of Frankfort, Ky. | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

The musical movements are somewhat similar to the internal mechanisms in an old music box. There’s a cylinder with raised pins on it with a different set of pins for each of the tunes.

“So you could shift the cylinder … and as the cylinder would turn, each of those pins would hit an arm that would then activate a valve to one of (a set of) pipes,” explains Erbes. “Air was supplied internally through a set of bellows. That was a part of the mechanism. So it’s, you know, it’s almost like a mini wooden pipe organ.”

Music lovers could select their songs and then crank the handle just like a music box. Musical cylinders for these clocks saw brisk trade, and the sort of music that came on the cylinders was almost always in the same genre.

“It plays dances essentially, different kinds of dance tunes,” he adds.

While “Making Time” is on display for a little while, Erbes says the beauty, historical importance and ingenuity of these clocks will last a lot longer. “This is a bad pun, but they’re timeless objects.”

“Making Time: The Art of the Kentucky Tall Case Clock, 1790-1850” continues through June 16 at the Speed Art Museum, 2035 S. Third St.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.