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.
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.
In 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.
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
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.
Bridgeport & Barnum; Victorian Picture Gallery; Harral-Wheeler Mansion Drawing Room; P. T. Barnum Presents Jenny Lind; Grand Adventure.
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.
P. T. Barnum: Bethel to Broadway to Bridgeport
P. T. Barnum; the name alone conjures ideas and imagination, preconceived notion of a man and philosophy. Known to most of the world as the 'Great American Showman,' for more than 150 years, the weight of the Barnum name has forced associations of humbug and merriment, the hyperbolic alongside the austere, provoked thought and invited controversy, welcomed the cynical and challenged the skeptic. With bourgeoning ambitions of a visionary, yet a man of his times, P.T. Barnum embraced the dream of a truly democratic nation, and in doing so, inspired a new American society to reach beyond the limits of ordinary expectations and to see the world as a place of opportunity and wonder.
The Brinley Miniature Circus: "Greatest Little Show On Earth"
In addition to the permanent miniature circus model on the Museum's third floor, Mr. William Brinley, and his son, William Brinley, Jr. will install their second elaborate miniature model in the museum's People's Bank Gallery. Numerous photographs, newspaper clippings, and seven decorative miniature circus wagons that Mr. Brinley uses to store and transport the model will also be on display. This is the first, and likely the only time both Brinley models will be on exhibition at the same location.
Address: 820 Main Street . Bridgeport . Connecticut 06604
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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