Quilts, Cookies, and Shakers

The American Museum in Britain

Following our American Day and stacks of American reading we have been wanting to visit the American Museum in Britain, a museum of American decorative and folk art right here in the UK. Well, as far I as I am concerned, anyway, not right here but over there a bit; hence why we didn’t pay the museum a visit at the time. Instead, we decided to make a bit more of an outing of our journey back from Devon and call in. The museum is situated by the University of Bath in Claverton which is about the middle between the M4 and the A303 on a map.

We were pretty hungry by the time we arrived and were in time for the hot meals served in the Orangery Cafe between 12 noon and 2pm. There was a delicious array of traditional American dishes to choose from including soups and baked potatoes with fillings like two-bean chilli, macaroni cheese and chicken in a creamy sauce. There were also American cookies and brownies (my husband recommends the Wookie Cookie), sandwiches and (because this is still the West Country, after all) English cream teas.

It was the penultimate day of the temporary exhibition ‘An American Toy Story’ in the ‘Gallery far, far away’ so we made sure we saw that first. The exhibition showed how American film and television such as Star Wars, E.T., Gremlins, James Bond, and early animations had influenced toy trends through brand marketing. There was a large display of Disney Princesses, an Ewok, a Death Star, an E.T. toy, Shirley Temple dolls and a whole range of other geekish merchandise. There was also a dressing-up room where children could morph themselves in Darth Vader, Buzz Lightyear, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anna from Frozen, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and so on.

Next we visited the folkart room which had genuine examples of those American Gothic/Emily Dickinson-style portraits of staring children and Puritan-looking ladies. There were also weather vanes, a carousel giraffe, a scarecrow and an astonishing number of duck decoys!

A Massachusetts ‘Keeping Room’ c.1690. A ‘keeping room’ was a living room, dining room, bedroom and kitchen combined. The name comes from the expression, ‘Where do you keep?’ with ‘keep’ meaning to live or reside. You can just make out the large family Bible on the table which is spread with a carpet, a family heirloom that was considered too good to be trodden on!

The basement level of the museum serves as an introduction to American history, culture and politics. We didn’t go through this in detail because, as I mentioned in my previous post, we had a daughter who was suffering the after-effects of a nasty concussion and her patience and energy levels weren’t up to a really long visit with lots of close-reading. The rest of the museum is set out as displays punctuated by replica rooms of houses from different eras and subcultures of  America such as the pioneers and homesteaders, the Shakers, the Pennsylvanian Germans and so on. There is an eighteenth century tavern complete with the original doorway and fireplace with the tavern-keeper’s name carved into it and a New Orleans bedroom dating from the eve of the civil war. My husband’s favourite item was a Shaker spindle back settee made by Andrew Southall of Bath Spa University. Southall used nineteenth-century designs and instructions to build his own version which is a thing of simple beauty.

Children’s Explorer Backpacks are available for use while you visit but we weren’t told about them and although we passed a rack holding a couple we weren’t exactly sure whether they were for use in the whole museum or just the folk art exhibition which is where we found them. Moreover, we were trying to keep this visit a bit more casual and we were glad we did because my younger daughter did flag and my husband took her back to the car for a rest. We saw some other children using them and they did look brilliant, just too time-consuming for that day! I think they would probably have made many of the exhibits more interesting and accessible, especially for younger children. There are also extensive grounds and gardens to enjoy on a warmer, sunnier day and a longer visit.

The museum closes for the winter at the end of half term until the spring but is open for Christmas 24th November to 18th December 2016, Tuesday to Sunday 12 noon to 4.30pm.



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