NOTE: The Barnum Museum is currently closed to the public—see “If You Go” below.
The Damned Story: In 1893, legendary showman and Bethel native P.T. Barnum opened The Barnum Institute of Science and History on Main Street in Bridgeport.
Well, the museum opened two years after Barnum’s death, but it was all his grand plan.
Originally built to showcase the history of Bridgeport as well as serve as an educational resource for children of all ages, the museum struggled in the absence of Barnum, and eventually came under the auspices of the city of Bridgeport. For decades it served as municipal office space until the 1960s when it was decided that it should be returned to its first purpose, as a museum. Refurbished and reopened in 1968, it was dedicated to the life and times of the King of the Showmen. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Currently, the museum showcases Barnum’s amazing story as well as his flamboyant exploits with all sorts of personal memorabilia, vintage items, historic images and other mementos. As you would expect, his efforts in creating his traveling circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” are chronicled in great detail. There’s also lots of space devoted to some of his more renowned acts — little person Gen. Tom Thumb (also a son of Bridgeport) and “The Swedish Nightingale,” opera singer Jenny Lind, among them.
For those looking for the “damned” on the premises, there are two particular objects of note.
The first is a reproduction of the famed Feejee Mermaid, one of the greatest hoaxes Barnum ever perpetrated — and profited from. With the head of a monkey and the body of a fish, the “find of a lifetime” and “the missing link between man and fish” was passed off with great fanfare on an unsuspecting public. Lured by Barnum’s bold claims and striking posters of a naked woman with a fish body, thousands of people lined up during the 1840s to see the not-nearly-as-attractive-in-real-life mer-fake.
The second item of note, which is decidedly not a fake, is the mummy known as Pa-Ib. Donated to the museum by Barnum’s second wife in 1892, the unwrapped Pa-Ib was claimed to be the 2,500-year-old corpse of a pharoh. Recent tests by Jerry Conlogue and Ron Beckett from Quinnipiac University and “The Mummy Road Show” determined that Pa-Ib is indeed an authentic mummy.
I suppose even a huckster like Barnum needed the occasional legitimate item to keep ’em guessing.
Our Damned Experience: We visited the museum on a quiet Saturday afternoon in March 2009 with our “damned” kids in tow.
We visited all three floors of the museum and saw everything the museum has to offer, from the feejee mermaid (so clearly a fake and so freakin’ ugly) to Pa-Ib (also ugly) to the numerous items belonging to Gen. Tom Thumb. Obviously, there’s enough circus-themed memorabilia to fill three rings as well as numerous Barnum-centric historic items.
For the record, there is way too much clown-related stuff for my liking, but then again, any clown stuff is too much.
Maybe it’s me, but with such a rich and colorful history, I expected more from the museum. It seems as though Barnum’s love of the fantastic and amazing is nowhere to really be seen here, nor is there much in the way of his renowned showmanship — we’re talking about the King of the Humbugs, the Shakespeare of Advertising! I remember visiting when I was younger and there were signs all the way through museum directing you to see “The Egress,” which when you’re a kid, sounds like some exotic animal, so when you were shown “The EXIT,” you had to laugh as Barnum pulled one last fast one on you. There’s no such mirth and fun. How about more sideshow-type oddities or world-flung collections, a la Ripley’s Believe it or Not? Just saying.
Anyway, the building itself is impressive and on the National Register of Historic Places, although it could probably use a little work. Still, the majority of the space is bright and well-maintained, and the staff is quite friendly and helpful.
If You Go: Sadly, the Barnum Museum has been closed since a freak tornado struck Bridgeport in June 2010, resulting in about $15 million in damage to the building. It is currently going through a very slow restoration process and hopes to reopen in 2014.
An exhibit detailing the museum’s unique experiences in having to deal with the tornado damage opens in May 2012 at the People’s United Bank gallery next door on Main Street.
View 820 Main St in a larger map