Byline: James Fallon

In Its Quest for Americana, a British Institution Turns to the Amish

BATH, England — The American Museum in Britain is going Amish this summer.
The museum, located here in England’s famed resort of Jane Austen lore, is holding a show of “The Indiana Amish and their Quilts” until Oct. 29.
The exhibition includes 25 Amish quilts from the Indiana State Museum and Historic Site, as well as photographs, toys and clothing. The museum’s permanent collection of textiles includes Amish quilts from Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana.
“We want everyone in Britain who saw the movie ‘Witness’ and loved it to come to the exhibition,” said William McNaught, the museum’s director.
The exhibition is sponsored by Richard E. Ford of Wabash, Ind., who was instrumental in organizing it. He’s also a council member of the American Museum.
“Richard asked if we had any Amish quilts from Indiana and I said no,” explained McNaught. “So he said that if I came to Indiana, he’d get me an Amish quilt — and he did. That was the germ of the idea.”
The museum, which is open from March to October each year, holds one temporary exhibit annually in addition to its permanent collection, which covers decorative arts, folk paintings and textiles from colonial times to the 19th century. It’s located in the grand Claverton Manor on the hills outside Bath.
“The one thing we don’t have is American paintings,” said McNaught, who’s been the museum’s director for the last decade after stints in New York at the Frick Collection and the Smithsonian Museum.
“We are rooms of furniture and decorative arts,” he said.
Part of the museum’s charm is its extensive gardens. The museum has a colonial herb garden, which it harvests each year to produce dried herbs and flowers for its traditional Christmas at Claverton, including a Christmas tree made from 5,000 dried flowers. There also is an arboretum with trees native to North America and a Mount Vernon Garden that is a replica of the octagonal and rose and flower gardens at the former residence of George Washington in Virginia.
The museum was created by Dallas Pratt and John Judkyn in 1961, and it since has become a favorite of such supporters as Drue Heinz; Lady Victoria de Rothschild; Bunny Mellon; Serena Balfour; Robin Hambro; Carol Price, the former wife of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James; the Countess of Airlie; the Countess of Carnarvon; Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; S. Dillon Ripley; Christopher Forbes; Victoria Legge-Bourke, and Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe.
But McNaught admitted it’s sometimes difficult to generate the support the museum needs, either from big American corporations or from American designers.
“The problem is we’re not in London,” he said. “Companies want to concentrate their donations where they will get the most publicity. But we’re one of the largest collections of Americana outside the United States, and Bath is a beautiful city.”
The Amish exhibition is part of McNaught’s drive to at once educate the British about their former colonies and lure Americans — residents and visitors — to the beauties of Bath, named after its Roman baths. The Regency town in southwestern England, about 90 minutes from London, is a jewel in the vale of the River Avon, with winding streets and dust-colored buildings right out of Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” as the author lived and wrote nearby.
McNaught is a firm advocate of Bath’s charms. Sometimes he admits he finds them too alluring.
“I was invited up to London the other evening, but didn’t go,” he said as he walked through the museum. “It was just wonderful to sit in my apartment and look out at the rain and the hills. I just didn’t want to leave.”