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The Barnum Museum, 820 Main Street . Bridgeport . Connecticut, comprises collections of the sensations, oddities and hoaxes that made P.T. Barnum famous, as well as a wealth of information about the man.

Perspective | Exhibits | Contact Info |

Perspective

To understand the significance of this wonderful museum, one must understand the man. Phineas Taylor Barnum was arguably the greatest showman of all time. He had a knack for finding and exhibiting people, animals and a range of oddities, some of them hoaxes, such as the Feejee Mermaid. Despite the fact that the Barnum & Bailey Circus continues as a living testament to his talent for promotion, he was also a politician and journalist and enormously influential both here in the U.S. and in Europe during the 19th century. He could manipulate the press in ways that render today's spin doctors inept hacks and he knew opportunity when he encountered it.

P.T. Barnum, as he was better known, was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. After his father's death in 1826, rural life faded as his ideal and he was drawn to the city lights of Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for a short time as a store clerk. His own fascination with curiosities strange and bizarre convinced him that his contemporaries of the era were likewise captivated and he set out to make collecting and displaying same his career. His reading of the sentiments of the times was dead on and people gathered in large numbers at the various venues he built, in particular, the American Museum.

The first of his endeavors involved Joice Heth, whom he billed as "The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World." Telling those interested that the story-telling, African American woman was 161 years old, he convinced his audiences that, as a slave, she had tended to a young George Washington. When a prominent physician pared back her true age to 80 after her autopsy, Barnum insisted that her body was a fake and that she was still performing elsewhere. Exhibiting Heth in the 1830s was only fairly lucrative but coincidentally may have helped to spawn the movement opposing slavery. In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was established, later blossoming into the civil rights movement a century later. With Heth dead (or exhibiting herself "elsewhere") Barnum went in search of other decidedly unusual and talented people.

Barnum MuseumIn 1841, he founded and built the American Museum in the heart of "Old New York City." The museum was an eclectic blend of sensational and gaudy attractions, including Tom Thumb and the Feejee Mermaid, natural history with exhibits displaying taxidermy and menageries, and art, wax figures and a Lecture Room and theatre in which Shakespeare was performed.

To many historians and social scientists, the American Museum was the bedrock of New York's urban evolution. Remarkably perceptive to the changing demographics of the city and the confluence of different cultures, Barnum adjusted the exhibits, shows and educational materials to accommodate different cultures and tastes as well as each strata of the social classes of the times. There was literally something for everyone. The public response was almost as varied as the museum's diversity. Some loved the museum/theatre and some were appalled by it. The flames of that outrage were fanned by Barnum's support of temperance and on July 13, 1865, the American Museum was burned to the ground. It has never been determined who set the fire, but Barnum did have a premonition about it, leading some to suspect that he was the arsonist. He subsequently built a new museum further uptown which was also burned down.

He is perhaps best known, however, for two special finds: Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind.

It was in 1842 that he discovered Charles Sherwood Stratton, whom he dubbed Tom Thumb, and who was only 25 inches tall and weighed a mere 15 pounds at age 11. Barnum invested two years in training Tom to sing, dance and mime, then embarked on a world tour with his tiny friend who performed for fascinated domestic and European audiences, including royalty and Abraham Lincoln. Tom Thumb became a "must see" in the American Museum.

Jenny Lind, whom Barnum called "The Swedish Nightingale" was a musical prodigy. She could play the piano at age four and developed an extraordinary singing voice, which she amply demonstrated to the influential and political, including President Millard Fillmore, General Winfield Scott, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving and others. Barnum took her on tour when she wasn't performing at the American Museum, but differences over the management of her career resulted in a split.

The Barnum & Bailey Circus, what he dubbed (and as it's still known today) "The greatest show on earth" is his most enduring legacy.

Mixing politics with his passion enabled Barnum to serve a one-year term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and he served two terms in the Connecticut legislature.

The Barnum Museum is an excellent chronicle of the life and times of Phineas Taylor Barnum and very much worth a visit.

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Exhibits and Attractions

Floor 1:
Barnum the Man; Baby Bridgeport, a preserved elephant; P. T. Barnum: Bethel to Broadway to Bridgeport; Library from Iranistan, Barnum's First Bridgeport Mansion; Introductory video, A&E Biography; Museum Gift Shop.
Floor 2:
Bridgeport & Barnum; Victorian Picture Gallery; Harral-Wheeler Mansion Drawing Room; P. T. Barnum Presents Jenny Lind; Grand Adventure.
Floor 3:
Barnum's American Museum; Pa-Ib; The Fejee Mermaid - Barnum's biggest hoax; General Tom Thumb & his miniature equipage; Lavinia Warren - Mrs. Tom Thumb; Lilliputian five-ring circus; and, Clown Alley.

 

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Contact Information

Address: 820 Main Street . Bridgeport . Connecticut 06604
Phone: 203.331.1104
Website: www.barnum-museum.org
Admission: Adults $5, Seniors and Students $4, Children 4-18 $3, Members & Children under 4 FREE
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10 - 4:30, Sunday 12:00 - 4:30, Closed Mondays

Barnum Museum Gift Shop

Additional Website of Interest

The Lost Museum, PT Barnum's virtual American Museum at the American Social History Project's Website.

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