American Museum and Gardens:
We visit a British museum devoted to American decorative and folk art.
You don’t have to travel to the USA to see American decorative and folk art – there is a fine collection at the American Museum and Gardens. Located just a few miles from Bath, the museum is housed in Claverton Manor and is set within 125 acres of parkland. It is the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside the USA and was established to educate people in the UK about American cultural history.
The American Museum and Gardens was established by Dr Dallas Pratt (an American psychiatrist and collector), John Judkyn (a British-born antiques dealer, who had become an American citizen), Nick Bell Knight (a furniture restorer employed at nearby Freshford Manor, Judkyn’s business base in Britain) and Ian McCallum, the Museum’s first Director. Pratt and Judkyn were inspired by their visits to historic houses and ‘living history’ museums in the United States during the 1950s. They wanted to show the achievements of Americans in the decorative arts and to promote Anglo-American understanding. They had a summer house in the Bath area, so when Claverton Manor came on the market in 1958 the decision was made to transform it into the American Museum in Britain.
Collecting for the museum began in earnest in 1958, facilitated by Judkyn’s business contacts – each piece testifying to the artistry of Americans and how these people had lived in the past. Panelling and floors were also shipped over to Britain, enabling period rooms from demolished buildings in America to be reconstructed within the spacious interiors of Claverton Manor. The museum opened to the public in 1961.
What to see
The furniture collections are showcased in 18 Period Room settings to create a sense of how American families lived during the last 300 years. Display rooms include a late 17th-century Puritan home, an 18th-century tavern and a sumptuous New Orleans bedroom from about 1860 – the eve of the Civil War. The collection includes several fine examples of Shaker furniture such as mid-19th-century candlestands, a fascinating tailoring bench, a stunning chest of drawers and smaller objects such as wooden boxes.
There is also an impressive collection of traditional American quilts and textiles, the Dallas Pratt Map Collection and the American Heritage Exhibition, which tells the stories of the Founding Fathers, Native Americans and the Civil War, through a series of interactive galleries. The museum’s library and archive is a fantastic resource for those interested in the history of American furniture and decorative design containing over 11,000 books and periodicals.
The American Museum holds an important collection of folk art including paintings, wood carvings, textiles, scrimshaw, weather vanes and sculptures. ‘Folk art’ is often used in Britain to describe ‘primitive’ art, but the museum uses the American definition of folk art, which is ‘the artistic legacy of ordinary folks living in pre-industrial America’. The American Museum’s folk art collection testifies to the exuberant resourcefulness of art and home decoration made ‘by the people, for the people’.