Pioneer lifestyles

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
The American Museum Claverton Manor, Bath BA2 7BD

Tel: 01225 460503

Re-opens on March 20. Admission is pound;1.75 to pound;2.75 for groups of students aged under 16. Entry for teachers is free

A Bath museum explores early American life through a series of unique interiors and an intriguing range of artefacts. Sarah Farley reports

After a visit to the American Museum near Bath, scenes from the 1970s television programme The Waltons or Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women become imbued with added interest. Household details start to intrigue you. Is that an Amish quilt on the bed? Has the stylish china on the dresser been imported from England? What variety of snow shoe is that hanging on the back of the door?

Admittedly, the details of American domestic life may not always be historically accurate in fiction. But at the American Museum, room sets have been impressively re-created - some based on actual rooms - and many fitted with original panelling brought from houses in the US. There is a definite atmosphere of the Wild West in some rooms. "The man and his wife slept downstairs in the main room in this amazing fold-away bed," explains a guide. "That way he would be ready to deal with any attack from Indians."

The precarious lifestyle is apparent in other details, such as the paintings of children by itinerant artists who painted a body and personalised it by adding the appropriate head. "Sadly, these were often to remember a child who had died, as many did," we are told.

Although the museum does refer to American history, its main aim is to illustrate everyday life, from colonial times to the end of the 19th century. The Shaker room draws interested comments from the Year 9 group from Luckley-Oakfield School, Wokingham. "It looks so modern," remarks one girl.

"Why is there a chair on the wall?" asks another. Our guide explains that the Shakers were very practical and would hang chairs on pegs around the room to clear a work space.

Many schools visit the museum for its collection of North American Indian artefacts, including items used in domestic and ceremonial life, and to look at how society was influenced by the arrival of Europeans. There are models of dwellings, ranging from a bark-covered wigwam to a mud-covered pueblo. Different cultures are also represented, showing their own costumes, jewellery and weapons.

The Textile Room contains a collection of original quilts, which represented an important aspect of social life. When families lived far apart, a "quilting bee" was a welcome social occasion and the quilts themselves took on meaning and ritual. Hearts, for example, were bad luck and weren't included in a quilt unless it was for a bride.

Alison Mills, who teaches Years 3 and 4 at Princecroft Primary School in Warminster, used the pattern and shape of the quilts for a maths session.

"We looked at symmetry, back rotational and reflective shapes, and the children had to decide which quilts were symmetrical," she says. "We took postcards back to school and tried to re-create the shapes using felt and on the computer. I have also incorporated it into PHSE. All the children made a paper diamond and wrote a quality on it, such as patience. Then we put them together into one big paper quilt."

Other options for the visit include the Costume Session in which two volunteers are dressed in replica plains Indian or colonial costumes. The Please Touch session involves an assortment of baffling objects which children can draw and try and guess what they were designed for. This includes a small, smooth rectangular stone, which turns out to be a handwarmer. Other items are even stranger. "Is it a garlic press?" ventures one girl. No, it is a rather sophisticated candle snuffer.

Flexible programmes and resource packs for primary or secondary history, art, and design and technology are available from the museum. Maths and religious studies options are also on offer.

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