Bath time for the Big Country

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Where in England can you find an observation coach from a Pullman railroader, a magnificent feathered North American Indian headdress or a 19th-century New Mexican chapel? The answer is at Claverton just outside Bath.

Here in a superb 125-acre site overlooking the Avon, a Georgian manor has been converted into the American Museum of Britain. Occupying three extensive floors the museum is laid out in a series of room settings, illustrating daily life from the time of the first settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Reversing the usual trend of taking bits of British heritage to America, the wall panelling and the flooring have been brought from the States.

So why did the first explorers set sail for the New World? What kind of conditions did they meet? How did they survive? These were the kinds of questions a guide encouraged visitors to think about .

Half of the first colonisers died. No wonder then that Thanksgiving for the first harvest has come down in history.Looking at the museum's collection was a lesson in practical self-sufficiency. Not only the big one-off things like furniture had to be made, but also items that are soon used up like candles, cutlery, brooms, butter or soap. Cloth was home-spun.

In Conkey's Tavern all human life seems to have crowded in from the toddler in its protective wooden cot, to the barman serving drinks behind his own wooden barricade.

Some of the individual objects are marvellously evocative such as the wooden wig-stand where the father's hair would be curled overnight or the metal foot warmer for use through the long hours in church. Complementary collections of crafts, such as a superb collection of quilts, show women mixing work and pleasure. Momentous events are filtered through domestic furnishings, like the rag rug with its British lion motif which newly-independent Americans liked to tread on.

The indigenous people figured large in the lives of the colonisers: you learn of the locations of the tribes and their differing lifestyles. Every bit as resourceful as the settlers, they recycled every single part of the buffalo right down to the stomach which was used as a cooking pot. Indian craftsmanship too is celebrated with wonderful displays of carved totem poles, horsehair masks, moccasins and beadwork.

Each visit includes a film, a handling session and for younger children the opportunity to dress up in costume. During the tour questions and answers are used to stimulate pupils to think for themselves. My group responded well to this but over the hour-and-a-half duration I felt older groups might be less enthusiastic. Also, pupils expecting a rerun of Dances with Wolves will be disappointed. Teachers, on the other hand, could usefully use the facts to proceed to issues. Why, for instance, have the North American Indians come down to us as bloodcurdling fighters when they began by showing the new arrivals how to grow tobacco and sweetcorn?

Other themes linked to the national curriculum include the Expansion West, the Spanish colonists, Britain and the American Revolution, Maritime and Trade topics, Religion and Culture and Arts and Crafts. There is also a huge reference library and map room.

The Education Centre, Claverton Manor, Bath, Avon BA2 7BD. Tel: Education Officer, Kate Dalton on 0225 463538.

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