Portrait of a nation - Museums Association

Portrait of a nation

Richard Wendorf, the director of the American Museum and Gardens in Bath, on showing off the US in the UK
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Richard Wendorf is the director of the American Museum and Gardens
Richard Wendorf is the director of the American Museum and Gardens Photography by Phil Sayer

“All that used to just be lawn,” says Richard Wendorf, the director of the American Museum and Gardens in Bath. “Now you can stroll around a historically accurate replica of George Washington’s garden at Mount Vernon.”

The museum overhauled its extensive gardens in 2018 and it turned out to be a good move, as last year’s lockdown restrictions meant that at times people could only socialise outside.

“Our footfall increased significantly last August and September compared with the past two years,” says Wendorf. “The gardens offer a wonderful place for mental and physical wellbeing.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, the museum was able to continue with the installation of a new children’s garden too. “We were able to proceed during the first lockdown and we opened it to our membership and the wider community last August,” he says. “And over the winter we have expanded our offer by creating a wilderness trail that crosses the parkland below the museum.”

Building stability

Renovating the gardens was just part of the £2.5m project, which also involved redoing the museum’s coach house and stables to hold concerts, dinners, lectures and small exhibitions, and run its educational programme. Wendorf says that it took two years to get the scheme through the planning stage.

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“There was resistance from conservation officers to adding anything to what was a very simple lawn,” he says. “So we worked with them over an extended period to show that we would actually be opening up the views, making more of a connection between the manor house the museum is in and the property around it. And although we were introducing American motifs it would be congruous with the English manor house.”

Claverton Manor is home to the American Museum and Gardens in Bath

Most importantly, apart from being an idyllic place to spend time, the gardens are bringing in new visitors and that helps the museum to be more financially stable.

It’s been very successful, generating a large number of family memberships and attracting additional funding,” he says.

Of course, Wendorf isn’t new to helping organisations firm up their foundations. And though he’s an academic – specialising in literature, art, culture and publishing in 18th-century England – he’s also a seasoned leader.

In fact, Wendorf was hoping to have a break from capital projects after he’d finished the last big one he was involved with at the Boston Athaneaum, one of the oldest independent libraries in the US, in 2009 and was about to go on sabbatical.

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“I’d been there for 12 years and taken the institution through its 200th anniversary, so I decided it was a good time to step down,” he says. “Then I got a phone call asking if I’d be interested in being director of the American Museum in Bath in the UK.”

Wendorf wrote a chapter about the move in his memoir, Growing up Bookish, which was published in 2017.

“The chapter about my move to the UK is called Highly Skilled Migrant, because that was the categorisation that the Home Office gave me.”

Richard Wendorf

Richard Wendorf is the director of the American Museum and Gardens, Bath.

He began his career as professor of English and Art History at Northwestern University, Illinois, where he was the undergraduate academic dean.

He left in 1989 to become librarian of the Houghton Library and senior lecturer in Fine Arts at Harvard University.

Wendorf moved to become the Stanford Calderwood director and librarian of the Boston Athenæum, where he stayed until his 2010 move to Bath.

Filling the period gaps

Before the Boston Athaneaum, Wendorf worked at Harvard University for eight years as the librarian of the Houghton Library and as a senior lecturer in fine arts at Harvard.

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In all the positions he has held, making big ideas accessible to anyone and everyone has been key to Wendorf’s philosophy.

“The first thing I wanted to do at Harvard was open up the library so that the undergraduates would begin to use it. I put a glass door on the front of the library so people could see that they were welcome inside, instead of forbidding wooden doors that were shut all the time. I really wanted this most rarefied of all libraries in Harvard to be put to use for academic purposes.”

He also reached out to faculty members in humanities and social sciences, going from department to department to try to get them to use the incredible resources that the university holds.

The museum has a wide-ranging collection

“In a way we were victims of our own success, because the library staff were hard-put to accommodate the influx of students and teachers who were coming to use the seminar rooms and to work in the reading rooms suddenly,” he recalls.

The library didn’t have a strong African or African American collection, so Wendorf also worked hard to change that. “To do that, we worked very closely with the Du Bois Institute, which is set up for African American studies.”

And this is something that is now feeding back into the American Museum and Gardens, with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement being a key issue for the sector, and something that Wendorf wants to reflect in the museum.

“The increased emphasis this year on issues of equality, particularly through BLM, will certainly work well with our focus on the diversity of American culture and turbulent history of the 1960s and 1970s.”

It’s something Wendorf has wanted to change in the museum for a while. “The rooms here are set out as a chronological trail from colonial New England around 1690, all the way down to Antebellum New Orleans in around 1860,” he says. “They are evocative rooms with first-rate materials. Everything is authentic. But the problem we have is that they end in 1860. So we have over 150 years now in terms of a gap.”

American Museum and Gardens

Founded in 1961, the American Museum and Gardens is housed in Claverton Manor on the outskirts of Bath.

The museum specialises in American decorative arts and folk art, and the manor house, designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1820, contains a series of period rooms documenting American domestic history from the colonial period until the late 19th century.

The museum’s programme ranges from exhibitions to lectures, concerts, and workshops.

The Folk Art Gallery, Stables, and Coach House were opened in 2011 during the museum’s 50th year. The new American Garden was opened in 2018, followed by the childrens’ garden in 2020.

The museum has been working to design some modern period rooms. “There will be one that focuses on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, and we are working with the Herman Miller Corporation, whose international headquarters are just outside Bath and who manufactured the famous Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair, which went to market in 1956. We want to create two Californian modern rooms from the 1960s and 1970s with music and iconic furniture.”

Looking ahead

Wendorf notes that these great icons of design came out of a time of social disruption in America. “It will give us a chance to talk about the turbulence of the time, which we can do by playing certain programmes on the television. Civil rights, the assassinations that happened – all this will be reflected in one way or another, in among all this groovy California furniture.”

The museum received a major grant from Historic England and the Historic Houses Foundation for repair work to the roof of the manor house, which will enable Wendorf and his team to proceed with the creation of the new period rooms.

One of the museum’s period rooms

The museum has a lot to look forward to, but its location does make it more difficult to attract visitors.

“The challenge of having an absolutely beautiful setting is that the museum is not in the centre of Bath,” Wendorf says. “I would say that location is both one of our great strengths and one of our real challenges.”

But with good financial resources and a stack of meaty subjects to get stuck into, the museum still has a lot going for it as it takes its visitors on journey through the history of America, from its early settlers to the 20th century.

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