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The American Museum in Britain
February 21, 2012  | 

“It was unique when it opened in 1961, and it remains unique today.” This is how Richard Wendorf, the director of an unusual museum on the outskirts of Bath, describes the only public collection of American art to be found beyond the boundaries of the United States.

The American Museum in Britain, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, has over 151000 items devoted to the decorative arts of America: fancy gowns and Shaker furniture, an extensive collection of native folk art, important holdings of early maps charting the discovery and exploration of the Americas, and one of the largest and finest quilt collections in the entire world.

For the past 50 years the American Museum in Britain has informed its visitors about the cultural history of the United States in order to strengthen relations between the two countries. Over 3 million people have visited the Museum since it opened in 1961, averaging around 40,000 visitors a year, including thousands of schoolchildren. In 2011, the Museum marked its historical milestone with a major loan exhibition devoted to Marilyn Monroe, a gallery trail, three publications, and the opening of two new facilities. The anniversary year featured parties, a film series, and lectures in Bath, London, New York and Washington, and a record attendance figure of some 48,000 visitors.

Two new facilities were unveiled in this anniversary year: the Folk Art Gallery, located in the former picture gallery of Claverton Manor, and The Coach House which includes the former stables. The latter is used for lectures, corporate retreats, musical events, films and educational purposes. The creation of these two new facilities was made possible by a successful capital campaign that raised over £4 million for the Museum by the close of 2009.

The folk art collection introduces visitors to a distinctly American aesthetic. “Folk art” tends to be a misunderstood term in Britain, often applied incorrectly as a synonym for “unsophisticated” or “amateur”. At the Museum, its American context is conveyed: the art of the artisan in a pre-Industrial America, with pieces often crafted for constructive use – such as bird decoys, weather vanes, and trade signs – or to capture child likenesses in an age of high infant mortality. The comprehensive collection is acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and ranges from the late 18th to the 20th century. It includes important works such as portraits by celebrated artists John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854), Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), Orlando Hand Bears (1811-1851) as well as Sturtevant Hamblen (1817-1884). There are also diverse sculpted pieces: from several shop figures (including three large Cigar-Store Indians), a Mohawk figurehead, gilded metal weathervanes shaped as Native Americans, to a late-19th century carousel giraffe and a carved eagle thought to be by Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890).

The Museum was founded by two visionary collectors: Dallas Pratt, a New York psychiatrist, and his partner John Judkyn, an English antiques dealer who took American citizenship after the Second World War. Based on their knowledge of the Winterthur, Shelburne, and Colonial Williamsburg museums in the United States, Pratt and Judkyn shared the extraordinary ambition of creating a museum for the American decorative arts and crafts in Britain. Collecting most of the objects themselves, they shipped them across the Atlantic and put them on show deep in the English countryside. Panelled rooms from old houses in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the artefacts of everyday life in historic New England, New Mexico, and New Orleans, Navajo rugs, the brightly painted tinware of the Pennsylvania Germans – Pratt and Judkyn wanted all of these rooms and objects to appear as if their original owners had “just stepped out” before their guests arrived.

The richness of the collection spans US history from its early settlers to the 20th century, portraying the complexity and depth of American culture. The rooms are devoted to Shaker and Federal furniture, the 19th-century China trade, and the Museum’s world-class collection of textiles, including the famous quilts collection. Claverton Manor provides a spectacular setting for these sometimes humble American rooms, and it was the founders’ intention to provide an experience for visitors that was quite different from what they would find in other English country houses. The rooms of the American Museum were “occupied” by modest people who lived industrious lives, often in harsh conditions, and who valued the work of the skilled craftsmen and women who produced their furniture, their clocks, and their textiles.

The Museum’s collections, in turn, have helped to generate a revival in the United Kingdom of quilting and patchwork, and nourished enthusiasm for the unadorned work of the Shakers. Artists and designers such as Kaffe Fassett and Laura Ashley have found it a great source of inspiration. Above all, the Museum has helped to promote Anglo-American friendship and understanding by giving its visitors a new way of seeing America: as a country with an interesting history, and as a distinctive civilization with its own traditions and ways of living.

During the past five years, the Museum has developed new programmes and facilities to keep its collections and mission as pertinent as ever. Its Orangery café has been renovated and expanded, an interactive American Heritage Centre has been created in the basement, rooms at the top of the manor have been restored for entertaining and for corporate hire, and the grounds themselves – over 150 acres – have been lovingly tended, with the addition of an arboretum of native American trees and a Lewis and Clark Trail. Visitors can also enjoy the Mount Vernon Garden (which pays tribute to the garden George Washington would have known in Virginia) and the spectacular view down the Limpley Stoke Valley.

The American Museum remains one of the most beautifully sited attractions in all of England, welcoming young and old alike. Through its collections and programmes visitors experience how the USA became different from any other country in the world.