American Museum in Britain. Extensive collection opens a window on America's past

`IT'S the quilts I liked best of all,'' said an English visitor to the American Museum in this famous British city. Her small son said it was the Cheyenne Indian teepee and the cowboy encampment that he enjoyed most. Both loved the aroma and the taste of the gingerbread, hot out of the beehive oven of the cozy, candlelit tavern that in 1776 belonged to William Conkey of Massachusetts. This mother and son are two of the 90,000 visitors a year who find their way to this unique museum of Americana housed in Claverton Manor, an 1820 neo-classic country house two miles from the center of Bath.

The museum opened to the public in July, 1961, and visitors from Britain and many other countries have received their first glimpse of America from the room settings, gardens, shops, and artifacts shown here.

So far, more than 2 million visitors from 27 countries have learned about America's past here. Seven percent of visitors are Americans who learn things about their own country on British turf.

They step back 250 years to view rooms from 17th-century New England, moving on to more elegant Colonial rooms with their Chippendale and Duncan Phyfe furnishings, and then to mid-19th-century settings, including those with Shaker and Spanish-New Mexican simplicity.

The exhibits interpret the domestic lifestyles of earlier Americans, as well as the historical and cultural development of the country itself. A Conestoga wagon on the grounds, for example, shows how pioneers made their way Westward to pan gold, farm, and expand the nation.

The transformation of Claverton Manor into a museum took place over 26 years ago in this quiet corner of Britain when two American Anglophiles, Dallas Pratt and the late John Judkyn, decided that the British public knew far too little about American history, art, and culture - outside the image presented by movies and television.

In 1957, after a visit to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, the two men agreed that a similar type of museum in England might be what was needed.

They reasoned that while plenty of British artifacts were shown in American museums, Americans had not exported much of their cultural past to other parts of the globe.

``Once the idea came, it seemed possible to achieve,'' Dr. Pratt said in a recent interview. ``After some false starts, we were shown Claverton Manor, which is located on a hilltop overlooking the Avon valley. It was in excellent condition, perfect for our purpose, and the cost was reasonable, just $30,000.''

Over the next few years, the two founders purchased the paneling and floors of whole rooms of Early American houses, and all the artifacts and furnishings, including the handcrafted American silver, pewter, glass, and textiles needed to depict domestic life in America from the late 17th- to the mid-19th century.

``Fortunately,'' says Pratt, ``we began to buy during a lull in the market after most of the major US museum collections of Americana had been assembled. By the time prices started to rise steeply in the 1960s we had already acquired most of best pieces. We set a high standard from the beginning that has been maintained by all the acquisitions and gifts from donors that have followed.

``Today, we have practically stopped buying, although we still are accepting appropriate gifts. We have enough to amply tell our story, and have tried to provide something that would appeal to all ages and types of people.''

Children, Pratt explained, ``love seeing the American Indian and Westward Expansion galleries. Men especially like the maritime collections and the Virginia country store. Women like the quilts and embroidery and the replica of George Washington's rose and flower garden at Mount Vernon.''

The founders, as well as Ian McCallum, director of the museum since its opening, have done everything possible to avoid a stiff ``museumy'' atmosphere. The 95 local women who serve as part-time guides are told to welcome guests as if to their own homes. Three of these guides are given travel grants each year to visit the sites in the US that it's their job to explain. All the guides participate in study seminars during the winter months, when the museum is closed, using the extensive museum library to research and prepare papers on their areas of expertise.

One milestone of development came in 1975 with the opening of the Education Center and the Audio-Visual Department to aid in conducting an active educational program in cooperation with English schools and colleges.

The John Judkyn Memorial, housed in nearby Freshford Manor, conducts another educational aspect of the museum. Each year it sends out loan exhibitions to dozens of British and European museums and art galleries, as well as school exhibits designed to assist in the teaching of American history.

An estimated 23,000 schoolchildren and 120,000 members of the general public see these exhibitions annually. Titles of these exhibits include: ``The First Americans - the art of the North American Indian;'' ``The Art of the People - American & British Folk Art,'' and ``America at Play - Toys from the Lawrence Scripps Wilkinson Collection.''

On July 11, 1986, in the 25th anniversary year of the museum, Charles, Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone of the New Gallery Building, which will be ready in 1988 to house an exhibition hall, the extensive reference library on decorative arts, architecture and history, and a permanent gallery for display of a fine collection of American and world maps.

Already $1.5 million has been raised from foundations, corporations, and private donors for the new gallery. Another $500,000 is being sought for a maintenance endowment.

The museum is open daily from 2 to 5 p.m., except Mondays, from March 28 to November 1, and admission is 2.75 (about $4.50) for adults, and 2.25 (about $3.65) for children and senior citizens.

It is registered as a charity and is aided by the Halcyon Foundation whose headquarters are located at: 228 E. 49th St., New York, NY 10017.

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