Ever since our dear family friend Diane spent a year studying needlework in London in 1974, I have wanted to go to the American Museum in Bath. Diane went several times and raved about it. I wish she could have come with me on my recent trip. I had a fantastic time, and I also learned a thing or two about my own country.
Outside the front door, there is a covered wagon. I find it amazing that people crossed the Great Plains, rivers, and mountains in these, with all their earthly goods stowed inside. My own great-grandmother May‘s family used a covered wagon as late as the 1880s to move slowly westward from Kansas to John Day, Oregon. This was one of several family stories that I was told by my granny, and didn’t quite believe – until I saw it written in the obituary of one of May’s siblings.
Covered wagon outside the front entrance of the American Museum in Britain. Bath, August 2014.
Inside, the museum – whose focus is on the decorative arts in the United States – starts the visitor with an excellent exhibition on the history of the country. You can see beautiful photographs of Native Americans:
Photograph of Native Americans
And their stunning artistry:
Native American headdresses and other decorated items.
I was very surprised, and a bit spooked to be honest, to turn the corner and find myself in a New Mexican room – because I’d just been immersed in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, about a pair of priests in 19th-century New Mexico. The novel talks about the tremendous care that went into making likenesses of the Virgin Mary, and other saints:
Recreated New Mexican room with “santos”.
The history of slavery was very well explained. There is a quilt with a chalice pattern, that was almost an Underground Railroad sign for slaves escaping to the North. And I found this most interesting – a beautiful portrait of a freed slave who clearly was cherished by the family she worked for. Not only did they pay for an oil painting of her, but they kept the kerchief that she wore when posing for her portrait:
Portrait of a beloved slave, Nancy Burns – and the original kerchief she is wearing in the painting.
This also reminded me of a family story passed down by my Granny: that my great-great-grandmother had been smuggled out of the South in the skirts of a “Black Mammy” during the Civil War. Again, I had thought this story was probably a bit of Gone-with-the-Wind exaggeration, until my research showed that my great-great-grandmother was born just a few months before the outbreak of war, in a part of Missouri that was brutally riven by tremendous violence on both sides. Black slaves did often help their owners to escape, and often escaped with them. I now think it is very possible this family story is true.
My research revealed that so much of what I was told is either confirmed by documentation, or seems very likely once one knows the history of a particular time and place. I now think that, unlike my rather cynical teenage self (who thankfully wrote down my Granny’s words!), earlier generations treasured such family stories, and were careful to pass them on as faithfully as they could.
Upstairs I found myself in the garden of delights which is the Textile Room. I felt so overwhelmed by it all, that I stopped to rest in this bay window. I think the window panes must be very old, to judge from the ripples and bubbles in the glass:
Very wavy glass (hand-blown?) in the windows of the textile room looking out beyond the terrace.
I spent a very happy time looking at quilt after quilt – Amish quilts, Red Cross quilts, Mennonite quilts, appliqued quilts, redwork quilts… and one cartoon quilt full of embroidered cartoons of mid-19th-century domestic life.
Racks of quilts in the textile room. Heaven! (Patient husband waiting outside?)
There are also some gorgeous rag rugs on display. Can you believe the one on the right was made in 1833? It seems so wildly exuberant for what I imagine must have been a straight-laced time:
Rag rugs in the textile room.
There were also some charming folk art paintings of 19th-century American interiors, featuring quilt-making:
American folk art painting showing two quilts being quilted.
I like the cat lounging under the quilting table!
I really enjoyed the many rooms that showed the interior decor and crafts of a particular time and place in American history. These rooms span the period between the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 and the start of the Civil War in 1861. This girl’s room shows the popular art of stencilling:
Stencilled room, circa 1810 – stencils were more affordable than wallpaper.
I also very much enjoyed the Shaker exhibits:
There was a good explanation of the differences between the Shakers, the Quakers, the Amish and the Pennsylvania Dutch. For example, the Shakers had no objection to new technology, but they disliked ornamentation; the Amish shun any new technology and also dislike ornamentation. (There are a very few Shakers left in Maine – I’m not sure how far they have embraced new technology.) The Quakers, I learned, suffered very badly after the Civil War because of their pacifist stance: both sides resented them not having fought, so boycotted their businesses, including Quaker furniture making. I hadn’t known that the highly-decorated Pennsylvania Dutch designs contain symbols that had religious significance to them:
Pennsylvania Dutch room. They were immigrants from Germany, the term “Dutch” being a deformation of “Deutsch”.
Only two of the recreated rooms in the museum use the tall ceilings of the original house. The rest have lowered ceilings, so that you can see the rooms in proportion. The very last room “fitted” well into the building; that is a room showing you ornate French-inspired furnishing and decoration in Louisiana, just before the outbreak of the Civil War:
Louisiana bedroom just before the Civil War. The mosquito netting was not merely decorative, as malaria was a big problem. You can just see the beautiful dress on a mannequin – it almost matches the wallpaper! The note on the bed is not a billet doux, but says Do Not Touch.
Outside the house, there is a very pretty courtyard, and a separate room housing Folk Art. It was really odd for me to see carved carousel horses, weathervanes and those wooden Indians that even in my childhood you would see outside cigar shops in the West…
Banners in the courtyard.
The restaurant is in a most beautiful space, the “orangerie” which has been lovingly stencilled:
The beautifully stencilled restaurant.
I spent a very happy time in the gift shop at the end of my visit. They stock some lovely things, including jewellery made by Native American craftspeople.
While waiting for the (free) shuttle bus that takes you from the centre of Bath out to the museum, I had made the acquaintance of a very nice woman and her daughter. Like me, the woman is a full-time carer, and was getting a bit of a break that afternoon. She’s a regular at the Museum, and gave me an excellent tip, which was not to wait for the very last shuttle bus home, in case it was full. So I took the next-to-last one back, and was glad that I did, as it was full by the time we left.
I would really like to go back with Michael and the Dafter – it was such a fascinating view of American history, through so many aspects of decorative arts. Apparently it’s the only museum outside of the United States that showcases American decorative arts, and it does so very well. Their website is excellent and you can see loads more covering their collections here.
If you’re anywhere near Bath, and fancy a little taste of America in days gone by, I highly recommend the American Museum in Britain.