Catching Up with the Barnum Museum

It had been ages since we have been to one of our favorite pop culture repositories, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I’ve been coming to the Museum since the late ’90s, and first wrote about it my ‘zine The Herald of Freedom, which was named after P.T. Barnum’s own newspaper, which was one of his first business ventures. The Barnum Museum was also the site of one of my first lectures when my book No Applause was released (2005), and as Barnum has always been one of my inspirations, it had a lot of symbolic import for me. I later learned that a whole branch of my mom’s family came from Fairfield County (the Bridgeport area) and I am a descendant of Thomas Barnum (1625-1695), Phineas’s immigrant ancestor! My most recent event there, however was 2010, when I spoke on a panel with Todd Robbins and John Strausbaugh.

Why has it been an entire decade? Sadly, just weeks or months after that panel, a freak tornado struck the museum, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. That sounds like a story — the kind of story Barnum himself would tell, and it’s also like stuff out of the pages of L. Frank Baum, or the legend of Buster Keaton. But it’s true. It’s almost as though the twister was calibrated explicitly to harm the museum. It came from out of nowhere, aimed for the museum, didn’t really damage much of anything else, and disappeared. But it tore apart the facade of the building and dumped tons of water and debris throughout the structure, badly endangering the priceless collections. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy were no help either. (The Museum is just a few blocks from the waterfront).  They have been slowly rebuilding ever since: raising money, restoring the building, and preserving and repairing damage to objects. They were entirely closed for a time, and presently they are partially reopened, exhibiting some of their most popular objects in a portion of their building a few hours a week.

But as luck would have it, I happened to be in Bridgeport yesterday to visit a relative, and it was a perfect opportunity to pop in and see where they’re at. Fortunately, the Barnum Museum’s generous, indefatigable Executive Director Kathleen Maher was there to catch me up. The dynamic Maher won the Connecticut Governor’s Tourism Award in 2018, and is frequently a talking head on television and in documentaries as one of the world’s foremost and authorities on Barnum.

Roll up! Roll up! Step right this way!

One of the world’s only original Feejee Mermaids. This one may have a greater claim to “legitimacy” than most.

The skeleton of a centaur!

A suit of General Tom Thumb‘s! This was from his younger years — it really is doll sized.

Maher talks about the preservation of these precious first edition copies of P.T. Barnum’s famous memoirs, which sold second only to the Bible in America in the 19th century. Reading that book changed my life. The Bible’s not bad, either.

This is the carriage Tom Thumb rode up in at his famous wedding to Lavinia Warren, which we wrote about here.

In case there is any confusion about whose carriage this is.

One of the highlights of the museum’s third floor was an enormous miniature hand carved replica of a three ring circus made by a local artist. At present, only one section of the model is on display, allowing me to catch a detail I missed when I engaged with the full thingumybob — elephant pellets!

An interesting breakdown of the carving process.

The carriage of Commodore Nutt. 

Barnum’s genuine beaver top hat.

A night gown of Lavinia Warren. Racy stuff from a Victorian perspective! If I understood correctly, the museum also has her wedding dress, which is being restored at the moment.

Christmas is about unwrapping presents. Maher taking me behind the scenes and showing me some of the treasures in the back definitely made the grade as a thrilling, unexpected gift. To wit, General Tom Thumb’s Napoleon costume! This was so exciting to me because I had often seen it in famous photographs:

Here are two hats of Tom’s — there’s nothing in the photo for scale, but I assure you they are about the right size to be worn by Charlie McCarthy.

Now: you can’t kid an old kidder. Maher and the Barnum Museum have done Herculean work rebounding from the disaster. But they still have miles to go before they sleep. This holiday season, as you contemplate your end of year giving, please consider the Barnum Museum. They still need to raise millions to get where they were in early 2010. But in the spirit of Phineas, who bounced back from similar disasters MANY times, I know they’ll do it. Please help them! Find out how at their website here. Or text to donate at the number below. And visit them! As I think I’ve indicated, there’s plenty of thrilling stuff on view there even in this truncated iteration.

For more on performing little people please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.