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Richard Wendorf and gardeners Richard Wendorf, far left, with the American Museum's gardening team in February, 2020. Photo by Clive Boursnell

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Living Through History

Dr. Richard Wendorf, Director of the American Museum & Gardens at Claverton, Bath, considers how the current crisis might change the way we live forever

Published on April 10, 2020


It all happened so quickly, didn't it? We had spent months preparing the American Museum & Gardens for its opening in mid-March. The new exhibition, on fashion and photography in the 1930s, had been handsomely mounted. Our volunteers had participated in new training sessions. We had just won best of show in the 'Leisure and Tourism' category of the Bath Life Awards. The gardening team had planted bulbs, cut back and cleared away, and meticulously edited the beds of the New American Garden; further afield, they had erected poles and arbours for runner beans and grapes down in the Mount Vernon Garden. Our cafe had been renamed and one of its two rooms redecorated; the menu had been revised and vetted and was ready to go. And yet, within a week of our opening, we were completely closed. Even my strong wish to open the gardens to the general public, free of charge, had to be abandoned. Most of the staff is now on furlough. A few of us remain behind - or home at our computers - trying to hold everything together, an electronically linked skeleton crew. We are, like all of you, very close to lockdown.

There is a part of me that is rather used to this sense of enforced isolation. As a teacher and especially as a scholar, I knew what it was like to have the normal structure of life suspended and the alternative of full-time reading and writing eagerly embraced, often for an entire year at a time. But this time everything is different, of course: I don't know how long this sense of suspended animation will last, I hope for everyone's sake that it isn't terribly long, and - like many other people - I am trying to maintain the integrity and security of an institution with my hands metaphorically tied behind my back. We will persevere, but we are doing so in entirely uncharted territory: hands washed, fingers crossed.

Strange times call for imaginative responses, but I'm not the kind of person who would happily spend hours on FaceTime or WhatsApp, nor share videos, photographs, and songs with college classmates, nor participate in online discussions no matter what the subject might be. The spare time I do have will, I trust, be devoted to just that mixture of reading and writing that is otherwise so difficult to pursue.

But I'm also trying to take a step back to think about how historically significant this moment is. In this country we're calling it the greatest national emergency since World War II, and people in many other countries will probably feel the same. My father fought and was highly decorated in that war, and although it was difficult to get him to talk about it, I realised even as a child that the experience of the war influenced so much of our daily lives in America, particularly the collective drive to create a safe, secure, normal way of life. And yet things had changed forever, with more women in the work force, more students pursuing a university degree, and the shadow of the atomic bomb already there.

The second world war pried nations and peoples apart; will the current pandemic, global in its tenacious reach, draw nations and peoples together? It's one thing to realise that we're living through one of those cataclysmic events that will eventually enter the history books; it's another to speculate about just how much this crisis will change the nature of our world. Will we be more or less eager to be global in our travel, particularly to exotic realms and even more particularly on cruise ships? Will a suddenly healthier global environment mark a turning point in the fight against climate change or will those dark satanic mills carry on as if nothing had intervened? Will the government's unprecedented bailout - previously unthinkable for a conservative party - mark a turning point in our political climate? Will workers campaign for the right to work at home more often? Will we be less wasteful in our everyday habits? Will we stop taking our small freedoms and large liberties for granted: everything from window shopping to weddings and funerals? Only the weeks and months ahead will tell. In the meantime, stay safe - and do join us at the American Museum when we reopen later this year. americanmuseum.org

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