Bath, Somerset: The American Museum

I don’t think the house is this wonky in person, it’s just a weird angle!

I have wanted to visit the American Museum in Bath for ages, not least because as an American, I’m always intrigued to see how the British interpret American history and culture, but it was closed the last time I want to Bath a few years back (I can’t remember if they close for the winter, or if it was because they were closed for renovations or something). But it’s open now, so I definitely wanted to work it into our visit. However, they are (sensibly enough) limiting numbers, but (annoyingly enough) do not offer any kind of online prebooking – tickets are strictly sold on the day on a first come first served basis, and since we had a long drive down from London, I wasn’t entirely confident that we would be able to get there early enough to get some. We headed over as soon as we arrived in Bath, and this is definitely the kind of museum where it’s better to have a car, because it is in a secluded estate outside the city, though maybe there’s a bus route that can get you close. I was pleased enough with the free parking!

 

We arrived just after 12, and made our way down the short trail to the ticket office. I knew they offered tours of the museum at 11, 1, and 3, so I was hoping we were early enough to make the 1pm tour, which would give us plenty of time to visit the Holburne after, but tickets were already sold out, and we could only get a 3pm slot, with a 2:30 slot to see their temporary exhibition, which was better than nothing! Tickets are £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass, though they don’t advertise the discount at the admissions desk, so you have to ask (fortunately, I had checked the website beforehand and seen it listed there, so I whipped our cards right out and asked for the discount that I knew was available). Since the 3pm tour wasn’t scheduled to finish until 4:30, which would not give us time to get over to the Holburne after, we decided to immediately leave the American Museum to see the Holburne’s Grayson Perry exhibition and return to the American Museum later, even though the ticket desk guy seemed skeptical that we’d have time. I’m a speedy museum visitor, and I knew I’d make it work, so happily proved him wrong when we returned later that afternoon with time to spare (even with all the queuing at the Holburne). To be fair, he was nice about it and asked how the exhibition was – he apparently recognised my hair even with my mask on.

 

Masks are required inside buildings at the American Museum, though you can wander the gardens without one if you so choose. We had a date with their special exhibition “Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs,” with items on loan from the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which sounded right up my alley, since I love vintage fashion. And I wasn’t wrong, though since they appeared to have removed the text from the exhibit, apart from a few larger signs that talked more about the era than the clothes themselves (I suspect they had the additional information written on either a laminated sheet or one of those little booklets you carry around with you and just thought the easiest course of action was to eliminate them entirely once Covid happened, rather than pay to have signage made) it didn’t take very long to look at. The most interesting part for me was actually the section at the back full of photographs of old film stars, since those did have labels. There was also a selection of 1930s fan magazines, and I was intrigued to read the gossip, since I love old movies and know a lot of the old stars better than modern celebs (though of course, with the tight control studios had over their actors in those days, there wasn’t anything really juicy)! The clothes were gorgeous though, especially the British seaside dresses, which I would totally wear, I just wish I could have learned more about the individual pieces! And the dressing up section was removed as well, for obvious reasons, but I kind of wished they had just removed the whole little station entirely (there was still a little dressing room set-up) so I didn’t have to be disappointed by realising what I was missing out on.

  

Since we still had about twenty minutes before our house visit started, we decided it would be a good time to check out the cafe, which I was excited to visit since they advertise the fact that they make American baked goods using American recipes, and though I’m usually disappointed when British people attempt American baking (the only American style bakery I like here is the one in Chiswick that’s actually run by Americans), I still wanted to give it a go! Although it was getting towards the end of the day, they still had a good selection of cookies and a few pieces of cake, but since the cookies were individually bagged, whereas the cake was just sitting out for people to cough and sneeze on, I opted for a snickerdoodle (basically a sugar cookie that gets rolled in cinnamon and sugar before it bakes, for those who aren’t familiar), and Marcus got a ranger cookie (I think they also had normal chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, as well as a couple vegan and gf options). I wasn’t too impressed with the ranger cookie (though I’ve never been that into them since they tend to be oatier than I find ideal) but I actually quite liked my snickerdoodle, even though it was a bit drier than its American equivalent would have been. And I was able to get a tea with milk without people looking at me like I was insane, which I would not have been able to do in America, so winning, I guess? (I still think I should start selling my baking so people know what this stuff is supposed to taste like, but I doubt anyone is going to give my home kitchen a health certificate and I can’t afford commercial premises.)

 

At this point, it was time to see the main house (Claverton Manor), so we queued up outside along with ten other people (and if like me, you drink a tea right beforehand, be forewarned that there aren’t toilets inside the manor – they are only outside near the cafe and in the shop building where the temporary exhibition is also housed, so I had to make a fairly hasty sprint over to the shop once the tour finished. They were very clean, however!). We were greeted by the two elderly volunteers who were accompanying us throughout the manor, who each took a group of six. Marcus and I got stuck with a family of four, whose kids got progressively brattier as the tour progressed. Now, the American Museum’s website refers to the house visits as “chaperoned” rather than as guided tours, so what I had envisioned was the volunteers just leading us to each floor and making sure we stayed in the designated area, but letting us look around that area on our own. Instead, our guide launched into a full-on guided tour, and though he did give us a bit of time to look around after, he started rushing us through if he thought we were taking too long, which meant we were rushed through the basement, which had more text than anywhere else in the museum, but had way too much time on the upper floors. As a volunteer manager, I don’t take any particular pleasure in saying bad things about volunteers – sure, you do run across difficult ones, but most of them are nice people doing the best they can – but the history nerd in me feels the need to point out that he also had his history a bit muddled. At one point, he told us that Ben Franklin invented a particular type of stove in the early 1800s, which I found curious since I knew Franklin had died in 1790, but I didn’t want to correct him and embarrass him in front of the group (it was probably good I was wearing a mask, since I pulled a face when he said it). He also started directing most of the tour at me, I guess since I was the only one obviously paying attention, which was fine, but he kept moving closer and closer to me (definitely closer than 2 metres) and I kept stepping back to try to maintain the distance (we were both wearing masks, but still. I was genuinely more concerned for his safety than my own).

  

His explanation of how the American Museum came to be wasn’t the clearest (and I didn’t have time to read the text panel explaining it since I was rushed out of the room), but what I gathered was that a rich American named Pratt, whose father or grandfather had been one of the early directors of Standard Oil, moved to England and got the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to American arts and crafts, so he purchased a manor house with a few of his colleagues, and they set about moving over entire rooms from houses in America that were about to be demolished, as well as a selection of arts and crafts. When I heard American decorative arts mentioned, I was initially picturing folk art, which I love, so I was very keen; however, other than a selection of religious art in the basement of the museum, the bulk of the collection was much more boring than that, consisting of things like furniture and silver. The tavern in the basement was interesting, as were some of the rooms (like the Pennsylvania Dutch room), but they took up a lot of space, so even though the manor was big, there wasn’t actually all that much in it.

 

My favourite room in the house was by far the quilt room, which was just filled with loads of quilts set up in panels you could flip through (they asked you to put on a disposable glove before doing so, which was fine with me!). The best quilt without question was the one featuring little political cartoons, though there were a number of interesting ones, including several from Ohio. The mother from the family in our group was clearly interested as well, so we spent the most time in here of all the rooms in the house.

 

There were about four floors in the house, and by the time we left the quilt room (about halfway through the tour), the kids in the family were starting to get restless, which is understandable enough, since so was I, frankly, but instead of making an effort to keep them entertained, or at least watch them, the parents decided to let their kids run wild. So they started fighting right in front of the glass cases and touching things that you weren’t meant to touch, and the poor volunteer had to keep asking them not to touch things whilst the parents trailed behind, completely oblivious. I used to see stuff like this all the time in the museum where I work (like a kid riding her damn scooter through the museum whilst her dad just stood there and watched), and I hate it when parents don’t teach their children how to behave in a museum (and the kids in question were about 8, so definitely old enough to know better! I have a lot more sympathy where toddlers are concerned). Volunteers shouldn’t be forced to discipline someone else’s kids! I eventually told them to knock off fighting in front of the exhibits myself, but they just ignored me. So obnoxious.

 

Finally (mercifully) we reached the end of the tour, and had an opportunity to visit the folk art gallery, which was frankly the thing I was most excited to see. This was smaller than I was hoping, and completely lacking in signage, but there were some delightful pieces in here! I wish the whole house could have been like this.

 

Obviously there were some issues with the tour, and the bratty children in particular (which is of course in no way the museum’s fault), and I think I would have much preferred visiting the museum in normal times, when I could have looked around at my own pace. I did like the special exhibition (though again, I wanted more text), and the snickerdoodles, and the staff and volunteers all seemed very nice, if maybe a bit in need of a brush-up on American history in some cases. 3/5 for this visit, but I’d probably try it again if Covid times ever end, especially since we didn’t even have time to look around the gardens.

 

10 comments

  1. Interesting! I never thought of England (or any other country) having an ‘American Museum’. But I can sort of see it. This is going to go on my wish list for whenever I might get to visit England again. (I love snickerdoodles!)

    1. It’s less an American history museum and more a place for American decorative arts, and it’s certainly not unheard of to have a museum featuring the art of another country or culture, so not really that weird when you think about it! I like snickerdoodles, but I don’t like the aftertaste of the traditional kind made with cream of tartar, which I find horribly strong and chemically. Maybe I’m just unusually sensitive to it, but it’s gross! These didn’t have that, fortunately!

  2. I’ve been to Bath a few times, but never made it here, probably because I was always visiting without a car, and there’s enough in Bath to do without trying to work out another way to get there. Badly behaved children are the worst, I’m sure we have agreed on this before!

  3. Even before I saw the caption on your opening photo, I was thinking, “Either that path is seriously tilted or the house is falling over.”

    It’s a drag that museum visits have to be so inflexible, but it is what it is. I’d love to try your baked goods sometime. Bratty children, ugh. My parents taught us to behave in places like that. Is it so hard? Maybe you could carry around some hex-looking sort of thing and scare the bejeezes out of them. Certainly scolding is a waste of time.

    1. I actually do think I somehow hex children with my mind (or just with my mean stare), because I find if I glare at a particularly annoying child, they often end up falling over a short time later. Didn’t want to try that here in case they fell into an exhibit!

  4. Never heard of this place, it sounds so interesting (as long as they get the history right of course). Sounds worth a visit but you may be right about going when you can wander around yourself. I’m not a fan or organised tours. Interesting museum.

    1. Me either, but unfortunately that is the reality at a lot of museums right now! Still trying to visit them whilst I can, even in non ideal conditions, since at the rate we’re going now, they’ll end up getting closed again!

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