Bath in Somerset hides a wonderful secret – just on the outskirts of the city is one of the UK’s most unusual museums, and the only one dedicated to the culture and history of North America outside the United States itself – The American Museum In Britain.
The museum occupies Claverton Manor, a fine mansion built in the neoclassical style by prolific architect Jeffry Wyattville for London barrister John Vivian. Serving various purposes in the intervening two centuries since its creation (including acting as home to radio impressario Kenneth Horne during his service in World War II) it was eventually acquired by the museum’s founders, partners Dallas Pratt (an American psychiatrist) and John Judkyn (a British antique dealer) in 1961.
The American Museum in Britain is a remarkable achievement – it’s packed to the rafters with Americana, and the first thing that visitors will encounter is an exploration of the various native American tribes. Even if you don’t examine the texts in any great detail, the quality of the rugs, pottery and jewellery in the collections will clearly show you that these peoples were not the savages that Hollywood likes to portray…
As you explore the museum further you’ll being to grasp the rather obsessive nature of the founders – located throughout the house, there are rooms which depict the way that Americans have lived at various points in their history, from the modest homes of the earliest Western settlers all the way through to an elaborately decorated boudoir from mid-Victorian New Orleans. These rooms are not reproductions in any sense of the word – they were dismantled over in the States and rebuilt inside Claverton Manor, and each one is authentically furnished with pieces entirely appropriate to the era.
Also worth noting is the room dedicated to the decorative quilts that were a feature of many an American household in years past – numbering several hundred in all, there are examples from across the centuries and from across the continent in a wild variety of styles.
Once you’ve explored the museum proper there’s still more to see – the American Museum in Britain’s gardens cover many acres and predominantly contain American plant species. As you walk around you’ll find a tipi of an authentic design, a pretty grotto and there’s even an accurate reproduction of George Washington’s formal gardens at Mount Vernon, his plantation in Virginia. There’s also an extensive arboretum to discover.
At the side of the Museum there’s a building specifically constructed to house special exhibitions – this year the theme is Gangsters and Gunslingers, and on display are artifacts and personal effects associated with everyone from Wyatt Earp to Al Capone. Probably the most interesting item is the wooden gun which the ill-fated mobster John Dillinger used in his breakout from Crown Point jail in 1934. Dillinger was shot dead in his native Chicago by federal agents just a year later…
If you happen to find yourself in the West Country then the American Museum In Britain is definitely worth your while – I’m sure that you’ll find it as rewarding as Bath’s more well-known Roman Baths.