The Adventurers in Spain or Italy or somewhere

Garden Signage at the American Museum

The American Museum in Britain is situated on the outskirts of Bath. A free shuttle bus service runs hourly from the city centre. Following our visit to the Roman Baths on Thursday 20 June, we hopped on the bus in two shifts to head out to Claverton Manor, the grand location where the American Museum collections are housed.

Gardens at the American Museum

Once the group had explored the amazing gardens and enjoyed the astonishing view of the surrounding countryside (a million peaceful miles away from life in east London) they discovered a museum rich with objects and information describing the history of America in a way that was easy to digest and assimilate. The Adventurers spent a long time in the interactive American Heritage Exhibition in the basement level which provided an engaging overview of key dates and events. They were generally less impressed by the static recreation of period rooms on the first and second floors of the manor, with the quilt collections especially unappreciated by our group. I had little interest in the quilts but did gain much from quiet contemplation of the reconstructed rooms – although the magical, dreamlike quality of the exhibits on these floors was occasionally unhelpfully interrupted by visitor guides eager to share their knowledge of the collections.

We had included the American Museum in our itinerary because of the Gangsters and Gunslingers special exhibition (until 3 November 2013) displaying treasures belonging to private collector David Gainsborough Roberts. Without wishing to stereotype young Londoners, the exhibition as advertised appeared to promise much of interest to our group. In fact, Gangsters and Gunslingers is likely to appeal to anyone familiar with gangster movies or cowboy films from the golden age of Hollywood. My particular favourite item was the business card of gunfighter John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, which revealed he had enjoyed an arguably less glamorous early career as a dentist in the 1870s. Other intriguing items on display included Wyatt Earp’s gambling dice and ‘cheat’ gadgets for ensuring success at the card table and a 1930s notebook full of poems (some original, some transcribed from other sources) handwritten by Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame, or infamy. The quirky content of  the exhibition rewarded close examination and more than compensated for the relatively unadventurous design and layout. The club members certainly took a lot from the visit: ‘I learnt so much today about some events and characters from history that really interest me. I could have stayed in the exhibition room all day.’

Beside Pulteney Bridge in Bath

From my initial exploratory phone enquiry to the end of our time at Claverton Manor, the customer service at the American Museum had been excellent. The shuttle bus even made a special return trip to Bath to accommodate our group and we arrived back in the city centre in time for a leisurely stroll alongside the beautiful Pulteney bridge (see photograph above) before rounding off a full day of sightseeing by climbing more than 200 steep and spiralling stone steps to the top of Bath Abbey bell tower to enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the almost uniformly picturesque city. As one member remarked: ‘It doesn’t look like a place in England. It feels as though we’ve gone on holiday abroad, to Spain or Italy or somewhere.’

For more about the American Museum and the Gangsters and Gunslingers exhibition, click here: http://americanmuseum.org/

To find out about booking a Bath Abbey Tower tour, click here:  http://www.bathabbey.org/towertours

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The Adventurers at the Roman Baths in Bath

Every year the Adventurers History Club visits a town outside London for a summer residential. The aim is to provide young Londoners with a wider understanding of British history, cultures and buildings. Since 2009 the group has explored the sights in and around Arundel, Peterborough and Cambridge. This part of the club’s activity has been possible thanks to annual grants from the Bishopsgate Institute and Foundation small grants scheme.

On Wednesday 19 June the group travelled to Bath in Somerset. A series of unfortunate events meant the journey took far longer than anticipated. Day One was spent on delayed tubes and stationary trains and the planned walk around the city on arrival had to be postponed. Instead we just had time to find something to eat and shoehorn ten young adults into a dormitory room approximately 10 foot by 12 foot in size at the YMCA before bed. No wonder some Adventurers needed to power nap the next day.

power nap at Bath

On Thursday 19 June, we walked the short distance to the Roman Baths. All agreed this was one of the most impressive places we had ever visited as a group. As one member expressed it: ‘it was the best of everything that’s old combined with the best of everything that’s modern.’

visit to Roman Baths

The site itself was extraordinary. It would be difficult not to make much of a space where an unusual natural phenomenon (hot springs) meets an incredible historic happening (here are impressive examples of Roman construction and engineering, together with two-thousand-year-old artefacts showing an entirely different way of life in Britain). All the same, enormous credit must go to the those responsible for the site interpretation. The balance between text, objects, inter-actives and re-enactment was perfectly realised. Care had gone into every detail; the audio commentary was illuminating and informative, staff were professional and welcoming – and the view from the Ladies’ toilets was unexpectedly dramatic.

view from the Ladies at Roman Baths

The visit had set the bar high for the remaining trips of Day Two. See the next Adventurers post to find out whether the American Museum at Claverton House and the bell tower at Bath Abbey were able to hold their own against the Roman Baths.

The Adventurers at the Lightbox

On leaving the Shah Jahan Mosque on Friday 12 April, the Adventurers spent an interesting afternoon at the Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking. When we visited, there was a retrospective of the bold figurative work of sculptor Elisabeth Frink in the temporary exhibition space (Frink studied at the nearby Guildford School of Art in the 1940s).

 
Elisabeth Frink piece
In the permanent display spaces, stories of local life and characters are told through a mixture of oral histories, text, still and moving images and objects. Transport, religion, sport, death and the military all feature in a thoughtful thematic arrangement of exhibits. ‘Behind Closed Doors’ provided us with information about the Brookwood Hospital which started life in the 1860s as the Surrey County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics. A chilling set of medieval-looking devices of restraint in the display cases triggered a discussion among our group about how attitudes to mental health had shifted over time, from manacled inmates in Victorian asylums to psychoanalysis and Freudian therapeutic techniques in the early twentieth century to care-in-the-community from the 1950s.

Another thought-provoking set of display panels told the tale of the Brookwood Cemetery, established in the 1850s by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company to provide a satellite or overspill burial space in the suburbs for metropolitan corpses. In a morbid subversion of the concept of the excursion or daytrip, the London & South Western Railway opened a private station alongside Waterloo station ‘proper’ from which coffins and mourners departed for burial services at Brookwood on dedicated single-stop trains throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Outside the Lightbox

The Lightbox (opened in 2007) is a relatively new gallery and museum that offers a fine example of what can be achieved when local historians, artists and cultural activists campaign to initiate accessible heritage and cultural activity on a single, central site in a region. Havering Museum in Romford (opened in 2010) provides a similar story of successful ‘community history’ activism. In both cases, well-designed and inclusive public spaces have been created in consultation or partnership with local audiences, organisations and government and with the support of national funding bodies – most notably the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is too soon to say whether this grass-roots approach to gallery and museum provision can deliver a sustainable model of success. For now, it certainly seems to be working, in large part thanks to the inspiring vision and dedication of small groups of passionate local history enthusiasts.

You can find out about the Lightbox Gallery opening hours and exhibitions here: http://thelightbox.org.uk/home

To discover more about Woking’s unexpectedly rich and curious history (and to comprehend the vital contribution of volunteers in the recording and promoting of local stories) click here: http://thelightbox.org.uk/oralhistory

To explore the parallel experience of Havering Museum, visit: http://www.haveringmuseum.org.uk/about.php

To learn more about the extraordinary story of Brookwood Cemetery, read this: http://www.demorgan.org.uk/blog/brookwood-cemetery-and-london-necropolis-train