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A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!






The only museum of American decorative and folk art outside the United States


The American Museum in Britain


Christmas tree in Central Hall of American Museum in Britain
(c) American Museum in Britain



28 November to 22 December 2013



Eureka! We’ve finally discovered the only American Museum in Britain, in Bath, and. as they say across the pond, ‘it’s a keeper!’

Awaiting the free shuttle bus to the well regarded, only slightly out of town American Museum, it strikes you that historic Bath is more picturesque than ever at this potentially, magical time of year with its’ extensive wood hutted Christmas market on the cobbled streets surrounding its’ cathedral and Roman Baths. Topping that off with our maiden voyage to the American Museum, the only one of its kind in Britain via its’ comfy mini bus, driven by a friendly, knowledgeable man who, refreshingly, openly enjoys his job only added to the experience of visiting this previously uncharted territory!

About ten minutes after our journey began we were on the 120 acre Museum grounds and spectacular grounds they were with still autumn tinted vistas stretching to the Limpley Stoke Valley below and hills on the horizon. The amazing collection of Americana, circa 1660 – 1890 which we were about to see inside Claverton Manor, built in the 1820’s by King George IV’s architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville, was compiled by two visionaries with a dual mission.  Dr Dallas Pratt, an American psychiatrist who served in WWII and his partner, British antiques dealer John Judlkyn, both dedicated to the oh so true proposition that lingering Hollywood misconceptions about US History needed to be rectified in a manner inspiring both pause and reflection in order to aide relations between our countrymen. As an ex-pat who started school not long before JFK began his brief term, I can certainly dig the ‘duck and cover’ fallacies of late ‘50’s American culture, so any canny debunking is always welcome! A case in point, our bus driver cum guide pointed out, is the Boston Tea Party, which baby boomer school kids were routinely taught was due to ‘taxation without representation.’ In reality, the ‘party’ was, he said, a revolt by tea smugglers objecting to the lowering of tea tax. Maybe it was all just part of a larger siege against ‘red coats’ in America? Further research revealed that the cause of the rebellion, the Tea Act of 1773, in reality, offered a (pre-corporation) tax cut for the transporting of tea by then monopolising East India Company, potentially stamping out cottage industries…And the beat goes on!

But even before we walked through the door of the Museum, which first opened its’ doors in 1961, we had a pretty good idea that nothing could prepare us for the much lauded, comprehensive collection awaiting us inside! With only a mere hour and a half to access its contents, our initial impression on visiting the informative lower galleries was that we wished we had an entire day to spend there! Before you visit, be forewarned that at this time of year, the Museum’s galleries are only open from 12 PM to 4:30 PM Tues - Sun and make every effort to be there for the opening! Had we not been asked to delay our entrance on this occasion, due to group visitors, we may have done the same; needing to catch a 4 PM train back to London didn’t help. The museum closes for the winter after its’ seasonal display and will reopen in March, 2014, when daffodils profusely bloom there!

That said, America’s history receives the most thorough and considerate perusal possible in these galleries, with each and every display, be it on early settlers, slavery or wars, meriting outstanding kudos for content in our minds, with special marks for the deeply moving and inspiring section on Native Americans.  The conciseness of the displays here only serves to add depth, for in the final analysis one is able to ponder the full picture as it were, of America’s oft chequered early history. ‘We’re only looking at 200 years,’ a British visitor commented to me along the way, though, as our driver had confirmed, the desire for expansion of the exhibits into the 20th Century was always there. Though both of its’ original founders have since passed on, that desire has been manifested via several extensive special exhibitions over the years, (Mar – Oct) most recently, Gun Slingers and Gangsters, an amazingly comprehensive, I’ve been repeatedly told, display juxtaposing Hollywood bad guys against less glamorous realities. Another outstanding 20th Century exhibition in recent years was Marilyn showcasing many of Ms Monroe’s personal affects along with iconic items promoting her enduring mystique. We were fortunate enough to fit the stand-alone Folk Art exhibit in during our visit and I concur that it is the finest collection of such artefacts, i.e. Cigar Store Indians and other forms of early, aesthetically pleasing, but invariably, historically misleading objects of influence I’ve ever seen in one place!


(c) American Museum in Britain


Speaking of Folk Art, the Museum’s vast collection of quilts is just as notable for their quality and range of technique as they are for their patterns, textures and scope of colours!

Yule-reka! the Museum’s 2013 Christmas theme centring on ‘ingenious inventions of the time’ is a re-dressing of their evocative period rooms, circa 1660-1890, incorporating accoutrements of Christmas as and when the holiday was assimilated into American culture. Poetic license in the form of seasonal flowers, berries and the like occurs earlier on, with actual trees and gifts materialising as we near the end of our time travel. In one room, facsimiles of Ben Franklin’s wood swim fins appeared to have been made, with questionable success, while the wealthy inhabitant of another had been wrestling with the task of converting a Windsor chair into a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s independent invention, the swivel chair. Further on, the lovely Greek Revival Room of 1852, features an early sewing machine, which, though invented by Elias Howe, was misappropriated by Singer and other opportunistic companies during his trip to England in search of the success that had previously evaded him. Law suits later due credit was given.


Greek Revival Room of 1852

(c) American Museum in Britain


In addition to their added inventive insights, each room is a revelation in and of itself with period clothing, fabrics and furnishings setting their moods. ‘Have you seen Gone with the Wind?’ a cheerful guide asked in the New Orleans Room. She was delighted to learn that the re-mastered version of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel has been released and is showing in local cinemas. The gown on display there, though a tartan pattern did remind me of heroine Scarlett O’Hara.

One of the highlights of visiting at this festive time is the seventeen foot tall Christmas tree in the Central Hall, decorated with ornaments lovingly hand made by museum employees and other volunteers. This year’s tree aptly features sparkling ‘machine’ cogs of copper, brass and pewter hues, along with, it’s been verified, nearly 2,000 glowing white lights, making it a seasonal sight to behold! As if that wasn’t enough, a bevy of pint sized hot air balloons floats below the main dome of the house, above the tree!

Following a whistle stop tour of this fine museum, I can only surmise that it is fascinating, as well as impressive, for the content, layout and insightful nature of its displays and well worth repeated visits. Not only are the grounds inviting, as they offer what is, surely, one of the most outstanding views in England, but there are also at times, live re-enactments of historical events like Civil War Battles there, I’m told, complete with canons! We’ll be back, and next time we do we’ll be there for the duration…


(c) American Museum in Britain



American Museum in Britain
Claverton Manor

01225 460503

Christmas Season Opening
28 November – 22 December, Tuesday – Sunday, 12noon – 4.30pm. Closed Mondays.
All Museum buildings and shops are open from 12noon. The Café serves light lunches from 12noon – 2pm. Afternoon teas, cold drinks, cookies, and ice cream are available until 4.30pm. Grounds are closed for the winter.
The car parks close at 5pm.


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