Interpreting US History in the UK: The American Museum in Britain

As an American studying American history in the UK, my response to the question of “What are you studying?” often inspires wry smiles, wrinkled brows, and variations of “Why here?” Although I am now fairly adept at justifying my decision, I remain fascinated by the concept of studying a nation’s history beyond its geographic boundaries. With my time in Britain near its end, I traveled to Bath to visit  The American Museum in Britain, a place all too familiar with this topic. The Museum is located in Claverton Manor, a nineteenth-century English country manor on 125 acres of land, and also features a Folk-Art Gallery, an exhibit hall, and gardens.[1]

Dallas Pratt (an American psychiatrist and collector), John Judkyn (a British antiques expert and furniture dealer who became an American citizen), Nick Bell Knight (a local furniture restorer), and Ian McCallum (the Museum’s first Director) founded the museum to counter the way British media and textbooks portrayed American culture. After visiting several “living history” sites, including Colonial Williamsburg, Pratt and Judkyn began collecting and transporting objects in 1958 and opened the Museum in 1961 with the goal of showcasing the vitality of American decorative arts in order to promote “Anglo-American understanding.”[2] To date, it remains the only museum outside the US devoted to American arts and culture.

American Museum in Britain Chairs and TimelineThe ground floor provides an overview of early American history, showcasing exhibits which cover decorative arts from the colonial era to the Civil War. While it would be easy to stick to a standard narrative, these exhibits often take advantage of liberties granted by their British context to challenge notions of “American exceptionalism.” For example, an exhibit on westward expansion (complete with displays on cowboys and a rifle collection) is contrasted with an examination in the next room of the link between European-Americans portraits of Native Americans and the “noble savage” myth and a timeline titled “Losing the West—the Native American Experience.” Importantly, the exhibits not only detail Native American suffering, but also emphasize the persistence of Native American peoples and their arts into the present and even feature information about ongoing repatriation debates. Although far briefer, the room on the Civil War and abolition boldly features figurines of characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and walking sticks with caricature portraits of African Americans made after the War.

While the exhibits on the lower floor highlight the freedom associated with interpreting US history outside the national boundaries, the Period Rooms on the next two floors reveal the constraints.[3] Each room is devoted to the material culture of a specific era in American history from the 1600s to the 1860s, featuring floors and paneling from a demolished period house along with contemporaneous furniture and objects. Unlike most historic house museums—where the narrative of each room relates to the individuals who occupied the house—the Period Rooms are largely distanced from their original occupiers, aside from their names and a brief note on the display board. Consequently, looking at the Period Rooms can feel like looking into a dollhouse with perfectly arranged furniture and an imaginary family. Although this bothered me initially, upon further reflection, I appreciate how this approach highlights the historical significance of material culture in its own right. Nonetheless, I would have liked more information on the specific objects displayed.

The Period Rooms could also benefit from greater geographic diversity. While there are rooms from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and (currently under renovation) New Orleans, the South is noticeably underemphasized. In my opinion, the most impressive rooms were the least conventional, including reconstructions of a Shaker workroom, a Pennsylvania German Fraktur room, and a New Mexican Penitente Brotherhood morada (informal church).

In general, the passage of time through the Museum often feels disjointed. While a beautiful pairing of a timeline of colonial-Revolution history with a progression of chairs in the ground floor clearly illustrates the evolution of decorative arts over time, it is harder to see the relationships between styles in the Period Rooms. As such, the Museum’s desire for breadth often sacrifices depth. In part, these shortcomings can be traced to the limitations of both the physical space of the Museum and of the objects Pratt and Judkyn collected.

Quilts Picture

The Museum is best known for its quilt collection, which totals around 250 different textiles, with some 50 displayed at one time. Despite not being a huge fan of quilts, I found the exhibit impressive. The quilts, rugs, and coverlets, are cleverly displayed on semi-circular display racks that visitors can flip through. When I visited, the display included the “1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet” (the oldest dated patchwork coverlet in Britain), a c.1850 Pineapples Quilt from Pennsylvania, a mid-nineteenth-century “Cartoon Quilt” from New York, an 1893 “Ku’u Hae Aloha (My Beloved Flag) Quilt” displaying the Hawai’ian flag and royal coat of arms, a c. 1910 Mennonite Quilt from Indiana, and a 1950s Navajo rug. By showing the quilts in this manner, the exhibit allows visitors to examine the quilts individually and draw connections between quilts from different locations, eras, and styles.

As a museum of American history outside the US, the American Museum in Britain is in a unique position to both inform the British public about American history and to interpret that history beyond the American context. Although some parts of the Museum feel a bit stilted (in particular, the Folk-Art Gallery resembles an antique store), the interpretative parts of the Museum intentionally feature a diverse range of American experiences and arts and do not shy away from “uglier” aspects of American history. While the Museum has some shortcomings, it definitely strengthened my appreciation of my opportunity to study American history, including through the medium of public history, abroad. Although visiting a US history museum might not be on the top of your “Must See” list while visiting the UK, I certainly recommend stopping by the American Museum if you are in the area.

NB: All images courtesy of The American Museum.

[1] The Museum is not necessarily the easiest to get to, but can be accessed by trains from London. Conveniently, the Museum operates a free shuttle bus from Bath city center six times a day.

[2] See Katherine Hebert, “American Quilts in the English Countryside,” American Quilter, September 2013, 50-4.

[3] Due to a leak in the main Museum building and the need for further repair and restoration, Conkey’s Tavern, the Greek Revival Room, the New Orleans Bedroom, and the Lee Room were all closed when I visited. The Mount Vernon Gardens and New American Gardens are currently under renovation but should be open by fall 2018.

One response

  1. The ground floor provides an overview of early American history, showcasing exhibits which cover decorative arts from the colonial era to the Civil War. While it would be easy to stick to a standard narrative, these exhibits often take advantage of liberties granted by their British context to challenge notions of “American exceptionalism.
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