Barnum Museum

December 17, 2007 — Phineas Taylor Barnum was a hoaxer, a purveyor of frauds, a false advertiser, a flim-flam man, a master of exploitation, a money chaser, a huckster, a charlatan, a sensationalist, and a humbugger—and all to such a degree that, as you’ve already noticed, I had to dig up adjectives that have been out of popular use for half a century just to adequately describe him.

However, despite all those pejoratives, he’s also completely venerated as a legend by the American public. For good reason. Simply put, he was bigger than us. After all, you’d have to be big to bring the world to the world. Now you might think that since Barnum was a collector and showcaser of oddities, I might have a bit of an over-inflated appreciation for him. Maybe. Context is, though, I’ve only recently really discovered him. Tangibly, I mean. As more than just a popular culture reference. And I did that in Bridgeport. In Connecticut. At a museum dedicated to him. I just realized that sentence fragments are way more fun to write than complete thoughts.

The Barnum Museum sticks out in Bridgeport like Connecticut doesn’t in the history of statehood. Bridgeport’s not exactly the prettiest city on the East Coast. Actually, I should probably qualify that statement. The part of Bridgeport that I witnessed seemed a bit, I don’t know...softly post-apocalyptic.

In all fairness, though, in my quests for oddity, I often end up in the worst parts of overall pleasant cities. But that’s okay. You see, finding a treasure in a treasure pile is no fun. But finding a treasure in a squalid hole? You’ve got a story for life. And the catalyst for an epic quest across Middle Earth. In this case, though, I made that sweeping negative statement based on a single street. Granted, the street was called Main Street. That's where the Barnum Museum is. And it’s worth an “X” on any treasure map.

In fact, in downplaying the area in which the museum is located, I have unfairly downplayed the appearance of the museum itself. The truth is that the Barnum Museum would stick out anywhere...except for maybe in the capital city of some ancient Mediterranean empire or on the desert planet of Tatooine. The building’s exterior is fantastic and makes me wish metal and plate glass had never been added to the palettes of architects. You’d need a brimming stockpile of exotic adjectives to fully describe this edifice. I don’t have those, so good thing this is an illustrated article.

The building’s made of stone and terra cotta in hues that suggest yellow and red to my color-blind irises and is adorned by sculptures of various culturally significant people and moments in U.S. history. The three-story-tall building is also somehow simultaneously domed, gabled, and steepled...kind of like a cathedral and a mosque mated and this is the heresy they spawned. Barnum himself designed it, actually, as an institute for science and history. I didn’t have to research the latter. On the front of the building is proclaimed the words, “Barnum Institute of Science and History.” It wasn’t until years later that it became a museum dedicated to the man who financed it. All in all, the building itself is oddity enough without the oddity of its contents or the man whom it venerates.

But let’s not forget the oddity of that man whose objects fill the building. His life was packed with so many items of interest that it’d be silly for me to list them all. Bridgeport served as the center of the Barnum maelstrom. He was born near there in 1810, lived there for his latter four decades, served as its mayor, established public works there, died there in 1891, and was buried there.

His life was a phantasmagoria of unusual creatures, strange artifacts, foreign wonders, mechanical inventions, performers, and all the human medical aberrations you can eat. His American Museum in New York housed hundreds of thousands of animals, oddities, and acts of amazement over the course of its existence. If you were or owned an oddity in the second half of the 19th century, you reckoned with Barnum. Interestingly enough, the thing he’s most known for, the circus, wasn’t a venture he started until he was in his 60s. Which, coincidentally, is also my retirement plan. Barnum also became a teetotaler for the last couple decades of his life. I guess when your existence is a living hallucination that by its very nature is the opposite of the doldrums, you don’t need the hooch. Since I’m throwing strange facts at you, you might as well know that Barnum’s second wife’s maiden name was Fish.

I arrived at the Barnum Museum on a Sunday, slightly before the noon opening time. The street was deserted except for a single car in front of the museum, within which sat an older woman. I thought she was just parked there to ruin my shot of the exterior, but it turned out she was a museum employee who was waiting for somebody to unlock the building so that she could get to work. She saw us standing around uncertainly like droids in front of Jabba’s palace and took pity, I think. She motioned us to the passenger window, where she allowed us to squat outside the window while she regaled us from inside her car with tales and pictures of Barnum’s life from a three-ring binder she carried. Despite our numbing legs and the queer looks of passersby, we were completely enrapt, and learned many of the surprising facts that are scattered throughout this article.

Finally, before we wanted it to, the museum opened. Now, I learned the hard way from my visit to the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities in Philadelphia that if you obey posted “no photography” signs, you’ll highly regret it. In my case, as a result, I am now devoid of pictures of myself with the Soap Woman and a nine-yard-long human colon, and my life has seemed slightly empty since. I wasn’t going to make that mistake this time. Fortunately, we were there at a random enough time that the museum was almost empty, but even if it had been Michael-Jackson-in-Japan crowded, I was still determined to get pictures. After all, anything’s possible with a small enough camera and a deviant enough partner.

The first floor of the museum is a gift shop and admissions counter, with a few random displays, including an actual preserved elephant...that looks nothing at all like an actual preserved elephant, just a badly detailed facsimile of one. It's the real deal, though. The first one to be so done, in fact. But the highlight of this floor is the fabled Feejee Mermaid, that glorious apex of taxidermy art that combines monkey and fish in ways that make the Creator’s jaw muscles tense. Now, the item on display at the Barnum Museum is not an original Feejee Mermaid. This was a prop made for an HBO special about Barnum. In other words, it was a fake of a fake. And, actually, that is good enough for me, maybe even better.

The second floor is mostly a description of Bridgeport society during Barnum’s time. Clothing, furniture, culture—boring stuff, actually. There is, however, an exhibit on Swedish singer Jenny Lind, though, that is a good illustration of Barnum’s marketing prowess. I would tell you to skip this floor, but since it’s between the first and third floors, that’d be difficult advice to follow without an elevator. The museum does have an elevator.

The third floor, though, is a big reason you enter the building. Most of the entire floor is covered by a miniature circus. And when I say miniature, I mean its thousands of individual components are tiny. All told, the model is gigantic. It covers like 1,000 square feet and makes you feel god...or Godzilla-like.

Another great find resides in a room around the corner from the giant mini-circus: a mummy. Pa-Ib the mummy, in fact, which Barnum toured as a real, honest-to-God, 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy and which, coincidentally, was scientifically verified in 2006 as being a real, honest-to-God, 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy. If Barnum had been alive at the time, even he would have been surprised, I think.  [UPDATE: Since writing this post, the general consensus is that the mummy is 4,000 years old and was not a part of Barnum's show. It was bought by his wife after his death.]

As you can probably tell, other than the mermaid, the elephant, the circus, and the mummy, the museum isn’t as packed with curiosities as you might expect from a museum that memorialized the life of a man obsessed with curiosities. I’m not sure why, but I have the theory that it’s because most of Barnum’s life burned. 

Everywhere Barnum went, fire followed. His American Museum burned down twice. The stuffed corpse of Jumbo the elephant that he donated to Tufts University in Massachusetts was destroyed by a fire that also took out Barnum Hall (actually, that's probably vice versa), which he financed. His first Bridgeport mansion, Iranistan, burnt down. His circus suffered fires regularly enough, including one in 1944 in which 167 people died. I even think I heard that the church that held his funeral services eventually burned down. If I'm wrong about that, let me know and I'll delete it from this article, no problem. Still, it doesn't change the point of the paragraph. It’s almost like the devil was always at Barnum's heels with a book of matches and a piece of paper screaming, “We had a contract!”

Throughout our meandering of the building we learned two things that affected the next hour of our lives. One, that Barnum had a statue in Bridgeport. Two, that he was also buried in Bridgeport. You don’t have to peruse this website long to know that I’m a sucker for both graves and statues. Instead of just a jaunt to the museum, this was turning into Barnum Day in my life. I will celebrate it every year accordingly.

We went back up to the woman who had treated us like a fast-food drive-through speaker. She looked at us as if she didn’t recognize us, but still was nice enough to give us her own personal xeroxed map showing the two places that we wanted to go. It was almost impossibly smudged to follow, but fortunately Bridgeport’s small.

His statue is located just down the road a bit from the museum in Seaside Park, which overlooks Long Island Sound. Bridgeport’s pretty much an outer suburb of New York City. Despite some of my earlier comments on Bridgeport, Seaside Park is a beautiful tract of land with sports fields, statues, benches, and, of course, a great view of the sound. However, around the Barnum statue is a locked wrought-iron gate, which still might validate some of my original impressions of the town.

The statue is pedestalized and depicts him seated in a way that makes him look venerable and sedate, which are the only two adjectives that do not ever spring to my mind when I think about P.T. Barnum, or at least when I think about the caricature I have of him in my mind. The statue faces the sound, which makes you keep looking over your should to see what the heck he’s looking at.

P.T. is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, not far away from either the museum or the park. We had a map of the cemetery, but it still took us a bit to find it, even though the cemetery’s small and his plot marker is as tall as a circus tent pole. Barnum’s family is buried around or near him, including his brother Philo. Yup. Phineas and Philo. Every one of P.T.’s accomplishments in his life were mere efforts at getting over all the taunts of childhood.

Across the path from Barnum’s grave is another tall marker...that of Charles Stratton, Barnum’s famous midget friend and midget performer and midget Bridgeport native whose midget stage name was General Tom Thumb. Atop the towering shaft of his grave marker is a life-size statue of his diminutive personage.

So Happy Barnum Day. When in Bridgeport, see Barnum’s museum...and statue...and grave. Go one. Go all.