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Located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Barnum Museum houses two main categories of artifacts: those related to the Bridgeport and nearby Fairfield areas throughout the ages, and those related to American circus master and curiosity collector P.T. Barnum. Barnum was a Connecticut native who, in the mid-1800s, developed a very successful business displaying and charging admission to see oddities of human existence. He initially funded what is now the Barnum museum with the idea that it would be a place of preserving local history. Over time, displays memorializing Barnum’s own life and unusual accomplishments were added to the collection, as well.
Barnum was a museum connoisseur long before he entered the circus trade. In fact, his circus career began in a museum called “P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.” The exhibits — mostly of humans with unusual skills or genetic abnormalities — were the forerunners of many circus acts. Barnum’s traveling circus was remarkably lucrative, though Barnum left the majority of his earnings in trust to build a totally different kind of museum in his hometown. That legacy led to what is today the Barnum Museum.
Originally, the museum was devoted to the work of Bridgeport’s Scientific Society, together with that of the Fairfield County Historical Society. The museum contained exhibits of early life in Fairfield county, as well as scientific advancements and discoveries by residents. One of the museum’s most popular features was its regular lecture series, which brought many famous speakers to the area.
The Barnum Museum lost a significant amount of money during the Great Depression, however, which forced its transfer to the city of Bridgeport. Many American museums were forced to shut down or similarly reallocate space during this period. For a time, the Barnum Museum building was used as offices for city workers. It was not until private funding again became available, many years later, that the museum could return to a place of public exhibition.
New funding brought with it new vision, and before long, the museum’s historic displays were back. By this point, Barnum had been deceased for quite some time. The museum’s new board elected to collect and preserve many of the artifacts of his life and career in a dedicated museum exhibit. As a result, the modern Barnum Museum contains both Barnum’s hoped-for history of Bridgeport and a rotating collection of circus life in the early 20th century.
The Barnum Museum is well regarded as having been the first of many modern day circus-themed museums. Many of the galleries go beyond basic circus attractions, however, delving into the lives of Barnum’s exhibitors and detailing the culture of the first traveling shows. Visiting museums such as this give onlookers something of a context in which to view otherwise static objects.
Many of the Barnum Museum’s collections suffered damage when the building, which is listed on the United State’s National Register of Historic Places, was hit with a devastating tornado in 2010. This forced closure of the museum in its entirety and required significant fund-raising from private donors and foundations to repair. Both the structure of the building and a great many artifacts were seriously damaged.