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Discover: The American Museum in Britain
Image Credit: The American Museum in Britain

Discover: The American Museum in Britain

20 May 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Just outside the dappled limestone of Bath, there is a beautiful and incongruous place. The 125-acre estate of Claverton Manor may seem at first glance to be the most English of country settings, but it is in fact a museum dedicated to North American history and culture. Within its walls, visitors are able to trace the history and character of one of the most powerful nations on earth, through a vast collection of quintessentially American objects and installations. The American Museum in Britain certainly wears its stripes with pride.

The American Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1961, thanks to a transatlantic alliance of four colleagues – a psychiatrist, an antiques dealer, a furniture restorer, and the museum director – hoping to display American achievements in the decorative arts and promote Anglo-American understanding. Within just three months of opening, the museum had received over 20,000 visitors, and it remains the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside the United States.


                                          
In truth, the hilltop site of The American Museum in Britain is worthy of a trip in itself. The nineteenth-century Claverton Manor sits augustly in place as though carved out from a jar of set honey, surrounded by acres of velvety green grounds. Walk round to the front of the house and you can stand on the sloping ‘infinity lawn’, which crests to give way to the vast patchwork of fields of the Limpley Stoke Valley, threaded through with the River Avon. It’s a breathtaking sight.
 
After soaking in the view, head into the cool foyer of the house to discover the museum itself. Remarkably, the manor's original structure has been preserved in such a way that the museum seems to have grown organically around it like a vine. The tour begins down in the winding passageways beneath the house, where America’s early history is presented in a series of rooms and displays. Native American history is particularly well documented here, with magnificent Cheyenne headdresses jostling for space alongside wood-carved totem poles, as busts of George Washington and the founding fathers look on.


 
The rich, messy tapestry of American history unfolds quickly from room to room, with an array of objects illustrating each key phase. Carefully preserved pieces of clothing dating from the American Civil War hang uncannily alongside painted portraits in which they are worn, and grainy photographs shed further light on the grim history of slavery. The museum does not shy away from America's long history of oppression, oscillating instead between different view points; the famous 'melting pot' can, of course, be as monstrous as it is celebratory.
 
Following on from the earlier history, the museum broadens out into a series of rooms furnished and decorated in the style of different periods. These installations tend to grow in magnitude and lavishness as you proceed through the exhibition, culminating in the oppressive opulence of a bedroom owned by a New Orleans plantation-owner. The vast mahogany bedframe rears up in semi four-poster fashion, carved in a garish, French-inspired Rococo style. It would have been shipped over to the US in pieces, then assembled and sold on. The care and detail with which these rooms have been restored and brought to life here is painstaking, and the effect is like being briefly submersed in another time.



A trip to the American Museum is really two days out in one. There is a pleasing counterpoint to the picturesque, lofty charm of Claverton country manor in its being crammed full of the sprawling history of America, complete with a rootin'-tootin' wagon drawn up outside as though Uncle Sam himself had just dropped by for a visit. Their exhibition space has a revolving programme – the current Jazz Age collection on display will be a treat for any fashionista flapper fans – and the terrace café serves a fine selection of American-themed pastries, including a cherry-encrusted ‘George Washington cake.’ Suitable for families, history buffs and those just looking for an interesting day out, the American Museum is – either way – well worth a visit.
 
For more information, including opening times and ticket prices, see the museum's website.
 

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