Monday, 5 November 2012

Cowboy hats, wigwams and dispossession

I'd wanted to visit the American Museum at Claverton near Bath for years past, but always seemed to be travelling past it, making my way homewards from some holiday destination (usually with the caravan in tow), and a stop was impossible. But while on holiday I managed it, as an afternoon trip from Cirencester.

The American Museum in Britain is housed in a mansion approached through trees aflame with autumn colours, high up on the west side of the deep Avon valley, so it commands a wide view eastwards, and in the sunshine the location looked most impressive. There are two main buildings: the mansion proper, and a large building nearby but quite separate that houses a permanent photography exhibition and some art. The guts of the museum are in the mansion, on several levels, and the Museum's purpose is to explain the history of the United States of America, reveal the various cultural influences that have shaped it, and to celebrate the result.

The tone is educational, with much to read about the exhibits. Proper attention is drawn for instance to the plight of the Indian nations, who were basically swept aside in a land-grabbing frenzy - a disasterous clash of cultures, in which the outcome was sadly always certain. I was pleased to see that the Museum did not sterotype the Indians, neither as savages nor as ideally noble, but their long history seemed to stop suddenly in the 1890s. And I didn't notice anything that drew any special attention to the slave trade, and the brutal injustices imposed on black Africans. But then the Antebellum way of life in the South wasn't dwelt upon either: I didn't see anything that resembled a Gone With The Wind stage set.

So on the whole then, the museum's presentation set out to inform, but had gaps - it played down, or left out, the bits that might remind you that America had a few skeletons in its cupboard.

Before going in, I discovered a wigwam on one of the terraces. It seemed authentic, but it must have been an economy version, because inside there wasn't a lot of room. Sitting Bull would have been hard put to sit down with Cochise or whoever without both getting their feather headresses all tangled up.

On entering the museum, you are first directed to an introductory exhibition in the basement, which takes you through all the early settlement stages, not just the 'English' colonies on the eastern seaboard, but the 'Spanish' territories in the southwest, and other parts too, including the Indian homelands on the plains that would gradually get encroached upon and then overrun. There were lots of things to touch and read. I couldn't resist donning a cowboy hat:

Bartender! Give me a shot of red-eye! (That's whiskey to you)  Pretty damned convincing, if you ask me. Watch out Butch Cassidy. I read about Butch and Sundance. There was a real photo too. They looked mean and nasty, and wore bowler hats. But apparently they did end up in Bolivia, just as in the film, and they did take on the local militia. Their death was uncertain, just as in the film, and 'tis my belief that they survive to this day on a Pacific island with Elvis. But then I'll believe anything.

The upper floors take you forward in time, from the early days right through to the 20th century, showing you a succession of increasingly sophisticated rooms furnished in the typical way of the era depicted, including ornaments, clothing, and many other distinctively American things. You get the impression (as you are meant to) that the people who flooded into the country over the centuries, who all became Americans, were a hardy, enterprising and ingenious lot, valuing family life and all the amenities and comforts of a civilised society.

Meanwhile, of course, slaves sweated in the South on the plantations. And Indians starved on their reservations, far away from their ancient ancestral grounds.

I am not black, and I can't begin to fully understand and appreciate what it must be like to have a dark skin colour and facial features that mark you out as a black person. Things that you can never disguise, that must be lived with, that should not matter, but do in America. I can say that I know what it feels like to be a member of a minority group that might come to harm. But that's not saying much. So far I have not in fact been damaged or disadvantaged in any way at all. Quite the contrary. I have had access to medical and legal facilities that have made me walk tall, and enabled me to blend ever better, ever more completely, into ordinary daily life. Nobody has ever stood in my way, or ordered me to walk on the other side of the street, or banned me from going anywhere, or has spat on me, or mocked me, or simply assumed that I'm subnormal or primitive or just second-class. Or not even a proper human being. It may be that many black people in America do walk tall today, but if so that situation has been a terribly long time coming, and is clearly not a universal situation. It must help that Barack Obama is the first black President, and he may indeed win a second term in office by popular vote, but I think that to be black is to be special in the wrong way in America; and I believe that America is still sitting on a time bomb, with another bitter revolution waiting to happen unless black people in America finally get proper justice.

Back to the dispossessed Indians. Where do they fit in? The unsaid answer seems to be that they don't. Bright young Indians can go to college, get degrees, become professors, have a good life. But most won't. And none can have their ancestral way of life back. Here they are, here is the classic cigar-store image of the Indian, carved figures in the Museum, frozen in time forever:

These are noble compared to the brightly-coloured version I saw (in all places) at Hokitika on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand, a few years back:

Look, he has little wheels, and perhaps he's trundled into position daily! What must real Indians feel, if they see this? Have any in fact ever been to New Zealand? Can any afford to?

And what would the Maori and the Apache have to say to each other? I think they would exchange a long, long, long gaze deep into each other's eyes, deep into each other's hearts, and then ponder together the white man and his works, and the pain the white man brought and is still bringing. 

One final thing I noticed about the American Museum was that no member of staff had an American accent. How odd.


  1. Seems to me to be an odd thing to have in this country anyway but it obviously attracts a lot of attention and visitors. Quite interesting all the same. Are there similar 'museums' dedicated to Canada to South or Central Africa or to India for instance?

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Of course there's a thriving black middle-class in the U.S, but it's no good pretending that nothing of the hateful prejudice that Dr.King and others bravely campaigned against in the '60's still remains.
    To what extent should all of us, of whatever skin colour take pride in our ethnic cultural heritage, and/or just think of ourselves as part of one, human race ?
    There does seem to be a statistically disproportionate number of poor and disadvantaged black Americans, and even more so in terms of prison populations, and prisoners on 'death row'.
    I'm not sure if that is necessarily exclusively attributable to current or historical white vs black racism, though undoubtedly it's a factor.
    Sounds like an interesting museum, and as you say puzzling if it's not staffed by any Americans


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford