It's Bath's Year of the Museum and the Georgian city is celebrating its heritage, writes Sophie Campbell.
You'd never guess that Bath is at the eye of a perfect storm. It sits tranquil in its loop of the River Avon, fuzzed with spring leaves and pink blossoms, those famous contours crowned with Georgian terraces like sets of golden dentures.
In fact, the city is a maelstrom of cultural activity. The Holburne Museum reopened last month after a three-year refurbishment with a new extension designed by the London architect Eric Parry; the American Museum has recently opened a new Folk Art Gallery; Bath Preservation Trust has funding to expand its Georgian house, No. 1 Royal Crescent; and the Roman Baths, fount of the city's celebrity, have just completed a £5.5 million program of new access and interpretation, which includes the deployment of a cast of "real" Romans. No wonder 2011 is designated Bath's "Year of the Museum".
In the Holburne, which stands in dreamy, fudge-coloured symmetry at the end of Great Pulteney Street, it feels like Christmas when I visit, early in May. Everywhere I look there are open boxes and yards of bubble wrap. The museum director, Dr Alexander Sturgis, is thrilled with the project. "This was built as the Sydney Hotel in 1796," he says. "The entrance was an archway that took you through to the pleasure gardens behind, which still exist, where there were mock castles and a labyrinth.
"That's what Eric's extension has done - it's opened up the vista both ways, so you can see Sydney Gardens and Great Pulteney Street."
I think it fair to say that not all of Bath is thrilled by a glass and ceramic cube backing on to one of its Georgian gems. You can't blame them: the city has suffered at the hands of architects and planners in the past, especially after World War II bombing and what is known as the "Sack of Bath" in the 1960s. But I think the Holburne is beautiful.
The glass reflects the dancing leaves of the surrounding trees and, if you squint, a vista through Sydney Gardens. The building has ceramic fins that diffuse light, almost like Monet's water lilies.
Inside, the two front rooms are now suffused in light, albeit muted for conservation purposes, thanks to the unblocking of side windows. The first floor houses fine bronze pieces and a mighty glass case containing a table set with the choicest antiquities assembled by the Bath collector Sir William Holburne.
On the second floor, a sumptuous collection of British paintings glows on walls of deep teal, including seven Gainsboroughs - at least one painted in Bath - and a Somerset Maugham collection of theatrical paintings.
The new space at the back allows for display of what Sturgis describes as "the clutter from Sir William's townhouse" on a domestic scale: miniatures, ivories, enamels, glittering flights of spoons.
The cafe in the bottom of the glass cube opens on to the museum garden and Sydney Gardens beyond. A stroll through this miniature landscape takes you over Brunel's Great Western Railway line and then the Kennet and Avon Canal, its towpath perfect for walking. The canal exported Bath's produce; the railway imported the middle classes, thus dulling the social cachet so carefully cultivated by the 18th-century master of ceremonies, Beau Nash, and others.
"It's funny to think that Nash never saw the Royal Crescent or the Circus," says Tom Boden, of the Bath Preservation Trust, during a whistle-stop tour of the city's best masonry.
The Building of Bath Museum, in a Gothic-style chapel, has a huge model of the city - made of hatpins and pencils, among other things - a city that looks as it does partly thanks to the trust and its volunteers, who have been fighting to protect threatened buildings since the early 20th century.
The showpiece museum is No. 1 Royal Crescent, the first house to be built in John Wood the Younger's spectacular semi-ellipse of Bath stone (whose facade conceals equally spectacular bodge jobs by speculative builders, as was customary at the time). Now funding has arrived, it will expand into No. 1A, originally the servants' annexe next door, improving access and making the layout more historically accurate.
As I plummet downhill again, it occurs to me that the flamboyant Beau Nash, real name Richard, the creator of the city that Jane Austen would have known, not only died before its most glamorous set pieces were built but before anyone knew the Roman Baths were there at all: they were rediscovered by mistake in 1858.
Inside the baths, a middle-aged slave is taking the weight off his sandals. A real Roman slave, of course, would be scraping some sweaty tribune with his strigil. But while living history embarrasses me (do I pretend I think he's Roman, even though we are both adults?), it works for children; it adds human scale and makes you realise how important this site was.
Actors, lighting, models and labelling show how they looked and worked. I like the videos replacing what you see with scenes from 2000 years ago: temples, altars, Turkish baths and the Sacred Pool (now the King's Bath), that occupied part of the temple to Sulis Minerva.
Next day I hail a cab to the American Museum and get an earful about the Holburne: "I haven't seen it and I'm not going to," the driver fumes. "You're the only person in Bath who likes it."
Peace reigns at the American Museum, in a Jeffry Wyattville manor house overlooking a glorious valley. It was founded 50 years ago by a Standard Oil heir and his English partner to teach Britons about American culture.
For its birthday, the museum has opened a permanent exhibition of folk art from pre-industrial America in the manor's old picture gallery. It has also staged a headline-grabbing show of Marilyn Monroe dresses that is oddly charming and affecting: the empty frocks with their sequins and cutaways show her fluctuating shape as she battled with drink, drugs and depression.
If, after all that, you still have the energy for the main collection of room sets, furniture, American Indian artefacts, New Mexican santos (or holy figures) and the famous Quilt Room, I salute you. With that level of stamina you should return to Bath and see its other 13 museums.
Trains from London Paddington to Bath Spa take 90 minutes and cost from £9.50 ($14.65) one way.
The Holburne Museum of Art reopened last month with Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself. Entry £6.50 adults, general admission free. See holburne.org.
The Bath Preservation Trust runs four museums. Work here will finish in 2013; admission costs £6.50 adults. See bath-preservation-trust.org.uk.
The Roman baths has a Spas Ancient & Modern package that runs all year in tandem with the nearby Thermae Bath Spa (from £61.50 a person). In July and August the baths are open until 9pm; entry £12 adults, £7.80 children. See romanbaths.co.uk.
The American Museum is open from March to October and at Christmas. Entry £9 adults, £5 children. Marilyn — Hollywood Icon runs until October 30. See www.americanmuseum.org.
See visitbath.co.uk for details of the Year of the Museum.
- The Telegraph, London