Review: Hundreds of Clocks Show the Beauty and Absurdity of Time in New Design Museum Exhibit

Wall clocks. Alarm clocks. Wristwatches. Decorative clocks and boring clocks. Glorious gaudy glass clocks. Cuckoo clocks and kooky clocks. Artist Barbara Koenen has gathered hundreds of clocks over the years, many of them donated by friends and fans. And the Design Museum of Chicago, in collaboration with Koenen, has curated and organized the collection into a new exhibit, titled The Correct Time, at its Expo 72 Gallery on East Randolph Street.

Koenen began her clock quest in 1989, when she was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For her first exhibit, she collected 720 broken clocks—one for each minute in 12 hours—because even a broken clock is right twice a day. The new exhibit encourages us to view the beauty and magnitude, as well as the absurdity, of time. 

Artist Barbara Koenen (center) talks to a visitor at The Correct Time exhibit. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Tanner Woodford, executive director of the museum, says they have more than 800 time pieces now and their goal is to reach 1440—or the number of minutes in 24 hours. So they are still collecting them. They are looking for more clocks, watches and time curios and you can contribute your own broken one when you visit the exhibit. Because the operative word is “broken.” Despite the exhibit’s title, none of the clocks and watches work. When I visited the exhibit opening this week, I contributed a glass-studded watch with a large-numbered face and a purple leather strap. It hasn’t worked since the day after I received it as a party favor.

The exhibit notes Chicago’s role as a center in the history of timekeeping. The 19th century was a time for growth and expansion in the US and Chicago was a center of commerce and industry. Before time zones were created, cities and towns would set local time based on the position of the sun. But the growth of railroads brought the need for consistent times across the country; in 1883, Chicago was the scene of the General Time Convention, where our four standard time zones were devised. So today we have Eastern Time, Central Time, Mountain Time and Pacific Time, rather than Peoria Time and Omaha Time. (Daylight Savings Time is another whole story.) 

Perhaps my contribution will be added here.

The design museum also provides an exhibit wall where visitors can respond to “How has time changed you for the better?” on paper circles and stick them on the wall. As I was trying to decide what my time memory was, I remembered the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, so of course, I wrote Between Time and Timbuktu on a circle and below it, I wrote “Kurt Vonnegut would like this exhibit.” (Between Time and Timbuktu was a 1972 TV film based on Vonnegut’s works. The title refers to a collection of poetry written by a character in Vonnegut's second novel, The Sirens of Titan.) 

In her art,  Barbara Koenen explores the impact of war on culture, through painting, sculpture, performative installations and exhibitions. She also is the administrator of the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange (CCRx), a nonprofit that redistributes donated surplus materials, equipment and supplies—keeping useful materials out of the landfill and getting them to people who can use them, such as teachers and their students, arts and community groups.

The Correct Time exhibit offers you a delightful way to spend an hour or so, learning more than you thought you needed to know about time and seeing an amazing collection of timepieces of every type. The exhibit is open at the Design Museum’s Expo 72 Gallery, 72 E. Randolph St., through October 3. The exhibit is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free and you can donate your own broken timepiece for the exhibit; if you do, it will be added to the displays within the next two weeks. The museum also has a schedule of events based on the exhibit.

Photos courtesy of the Design Museum of Chicago, except where noted.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.