I walked up to the customs officer and handed her my passport, which was opened to my student visa. When she asked for my letter of intent as to why I was entering the UK, I turned red. That letter was buried at the bottom of my extremely heavy carry-on. As I dug it out, I feared that she was probably thinking ‘what a dumb American.’ I managed to produce my papers and the questions began. “Where are you working?” she asked. “The American Museum in Britain,” I replied. “Where’s that?” she asked, sounding more than confused. “Bath,” I replied. “Well, who knew?” Really though, who knew that there is an American museum anywhere outside of, well, America? As an American studying for the semester in Bath, the city of all things Jane Austen, why did I choose to spend part of my semester at the American Museum?
First and foremost, the American Museum in Britain has an amazing collection of early American artifacts, folk art, and period rooms that have been recreated inside the museum. These collections include a better treatment of Native Americans than I have found in the average American history museum. This year’s exhibit in the main house also includes “Spirit Hawk Eye,” modern photographs of Native American culture by Heidi Laughton. The American Museum makes a concentrated effort to show more than just the sterilized history of the United States that has long been our national story.
Though the collections and exhibits are wonderful, I would argue that perhaps the more exciting part of my experience has been viewing my own history through the eyes of someone else. As historians we very rarely are given the opportunity to examine our biases in quite such an obvious way. We all have a story, or a history, a predictable old friend that we know well. But this is the story that we have been conditioned to hear. For example, in countless writings on the Civil War we are used to hearing over and over about abolitionism in the North and the “New Birth of Freedom.” The American Heritage exhibition includes a short video covering the causes of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. In the video, the New York Draft Riot of 1863 is linked with the Emancipation Proclamation, which, according to the video, made the war unpopular in the North. My point is not to argue this interpretation, but rather to highlight the differences in how a typical American museum would address this issue. This would be the moment of Lincoln’s triumph, but here in England, the Brits are not buying the “Treasury of Virtue,” as Robert Penn Warren aptly put it in The Legacy of the Civil War. As I watched the video, it certainly was not what I expected to hear, but regardless, it made me question what I accept without question.
The customs officer I encountered in my first moments in Great Britain may have looked at me like I was crazy when I told her that I was interning at the American Museum in Britain, but she could never know the kinds of lessons that I would learn from this place. Historians often are not aware of our own biases, but visiting a place like the American Museum is one quick way to become aware of those biases. Though it is not in the city center and in many ways does not fit in with the Jane Austen-ness of Bath, the American Museum is nonetheless a gem. Americans need to visit this place and see how other people view our history.