Unique New England Museums: The Barnum Museum


By Carla Charter

BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT –  P.T. Barnum’s first American Museum opened on January 1, 1842 in New York City. “It was the first major public attraction, up until then museums were only open to the educated and elite,” according to Kathleen Maher, Executive Director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The Connecticut Barnum Museum, the last one he built, opened on February 18, 1893.   “Unfortunately, Barnum passed away before it was finished,” Maher said. The building where the Barnum Museum, which houses memorabilia of Barnum’s life and the Greatest Show on Earth is on the National Registry of Historic Places. “It was never called Barnum’s Circus,” she said.  “Barnum died 20 years before the name Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus was used.  He would never have taken second billing, Maher said.

Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut and raised there. He was one of 12 siblings and half siblings. “To put that in the appropriate historical time frame, when he was born Napoleon and some of the founding fathers were still alive,” said Maher.

“Everyone associates P.T. Barnum with the circus but the circus was actually his retirement project. Previous to Barnum’s show he had tried many different jobs, trying to find his place. Barnum created the entertainment industry,” Maher continued

Among the items at the Bridgeport Museum are objects related to Charles Stratton better known as Tom Thumb, was born in Bridgeport, and was considered the world’s first transcontinental celebrity. Stratton’s items on display at the museum include clothing and a carriage.

The museum in recent years been hit with a trifecta of storms.  First an EF-1 tornado struck Bridgeport, then the area was hit by Hurricane Irene and a year after that by Hurricane Sandy,” said Maher. Major damage was done to the building when the tornado struck.  “It lifted and shifted the massive dome and damaged the structural integrity of the building,” she continued.

“All debris that the tornado had picked up came in through the HVAC system and along with blasting out the windows also cover every artifact with a coat of grime from the Tornado. We still have a couple of artifacts in the conservation labs. Every single artifact, 20,000 in total needed its own particular care It took a year of stabilizing the items and finding specialists before they were cleaned,” she said.

The total renovation project is expected to cost $60 million dollars. The museum has already raised 6.9 million and through project bonding has added another $7 million.  Avangrid has also donated $50,000 to help pay for exterior lighting for the museum.

In 2012 the museum received a historic preservation grant to re-open in, a smaller venue,  the People’s United Bank a gallery behind the museum.  On display there are several hundred items, including a hand carved miniature circus.

With the debut of the film, The Greatest Showman, in 2017, interest in P.T. Barnum and the museum has grown.  “We had a couple from Japan the other day who saw the movie and created a trip to see all of the Barnum sites,” Maher said.

The gallery is opened on Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and also runs a special program once a month on Sunday afternoons. The museum also provides outreach to school classrooms.

Maher will also be presenting a program entitled ‘Fact vs. Fiction, The Real story behind the Reel Story,’ at the Old State House on March 26th at noon.  The program will highlight the differences between the movie, the film, The Greatest Showman and the actual P.T. Barnum and his Greatest Show on Earth. People who would like more information on P.T. Barnum and the museum can visit the museum’s website at www.Barnum-museum.org.