The Barnum Museum
The Barnum Museum preserves and interprets the history of P.T. Barnum, an American showman and one of the founders of the iconic Barnum & Bailey Circus. Listed on the National Register of historic places and located in downtown Bridgeport, this three-story museum offers a variety of exhibits that share the history and mythology surrounding P.T. Barnum’s life and work. Visitors can browse a number of exhibits, including artifacts drawn from Barnum's personal collection and related to the history of the circus in the United States. The most popular feature offers a one-thousand square-foot miniature representation of a five-ring circus with 3,000 hand-crafted figurines. The museum is also home to several exhibits committed to preserving and illustrating Bridgeport’s industrial and social history. From the first floor’s gallery that ports visitors on a journey through Barnum’s multifaceted life to the third floor’s dedication to Barnum’s protégé, General Tom Thumb, the Barnum Museum takes museum-goers on a ride traversing Bridgeport’s history and the life and career of one of the most famous showmen in American history.
Backstory and Context
Constructed in 1893 and originally known as The Barnum Institute of Science and History, P.T. Barnum envisioned this Byzantine and Romanesque-influenced building as a prominent resource library and lecture hall. In fact, iconic American figures and luminaries such as the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison spoke at the institute in its early days. With the Great Depression in full swing by 1933, financial instability led to the museum’s acquisition by the City of Bridgeport. From 1943 until 1946, the city remodeled the structure, and it thereafter opened as a city hall annex, where it remained throughout the 1960s. Concerned city officials and Bridgeport citizens paved the way for the opening of the P.T. Barnum Museum in 1968, and only four years later, the Barnum Museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Combining a deep influence central to Bridgeport’s history, the exhibits housed among the three floors at this museum offer a new and exciting chance for visitors to explore both Bridgeport and P.T. Barnum. Across the top of the building, visitors are first confronted by five relief panels illustrating America’s history, ranging from a 1670 relief depicting Native Americans to an 1870 panel of America’s industrial revolution. Within these panels, there are six busts also dedicated to central historical figures, such as Christopher Columbus and President Grover Cleveland. Many of Barnum’s personal items and artifacts are carefully organized across the first floor of the museum, as the P.T. Barnum: Bethel to Broadway to Bridgeport exhibit explores Barnum’s family, political, and professional life before concluding with his (arguably) pinnacle life achievement — P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth.
The main lobby and the first floor feature a re-creation of the library from Barnum’s first mansion as well as Baby Bridgeport, a six-foot, eight-inch mounted pachyderm that is also the first elephant born in captivity to be preserved. Bridgeport history buffs can delight in the museum’s second floor, which features several exhibits exploring the culture and industry of 19th-century Bridgeport. Located adjacent to the second-floor main gallery is a re-creation of the drawing room found in the iconic Harral-Wheeler mansion, which is considered to be one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture and design in the United States. Heading up to the third floor, museum-goers can discover those 3,000 hand-crafted figurings and circus sets, one of the most outstanding carved circus models in the nation.