Yeah, no kidding!

In 2010, Bridgeport, Connecticut was struck by an EF1 tornado. (Added note Reddit readers….tornados don’t typically happen in Connecticut, so what the WHAT?) Sitting at ground zero, the historic Barnum Museum sustained some of the worst damage. The building was compromised to the point of impending failure and public galleries were affected. In 2011, Hurricane Irene brought additional damage, worsening the already frail building. Super Storm Sandy hit the following year with its 115-mile-per-hour winds compounding the destruction. This trifecta of natural disasters threatened the very existence of this historic place. The museum is 120 years old, and every exhibit had been damaged. In the true spirit of P.T. Barnum, the show must go on! Over the last several years, the museum staff and I have saved over 20,000 artifacts, and we're still in the midst of trying to fully fix the building, a historic landmark. Ever onward! I'm here to answer questions with help from Atlas Obscura. Looking forward to the chat!


EDIT: Dear Reddit! I’m sorry to say I have to sign off! I have a big re-envisioning meeting this afternoon and need to prepare! It was a joy to talk to you all and my sincere thanks for your questions and kind encouragement! I’ll end with Barnum’s quote “The noblest art is that of making others happy” Thank you all, have a wonderful day and the SHOW WILL GO ON!

Comments: 103 • Responses: 21  • Date: 

Blueroflmao50 karma

Was Barnum seen as a good man, or generally the opposite for exploiting these people? How was it back then, and how do you personally see him?

atlasobscura81 karma

That is a great question! Public figures, past or present ALWAYS have critics. So indeed, people had opinions about Barnum, but during his lifetime he was very popular and liked! What is critical to remember when studying any person from the past is the context of the time they lived. Barnum is born in 1810 (much earlier than people think) so social ideals were extraordinarily different and who we are and what we value today emerges from the struggles and triumphs of the past.

cyberdude851134 karma

What effect has The Greatest Showman had on museum attendance and interest in PT Barnum overall?

atlasobscura66 karma

Wow! The first time I was contacted by the film was back in 2009! From then we were in communication periodically. Last spring we began working with 20th Century Fox on some collaborative promotion. The Fox folks did let us know that the movie was 'not a documentary' but intended to demonstrate Barnum's spirit and ability to make people happy. SOOO to answer your question, we have thousands of quests coming to the Museum wanting to know the truth! We created a program - Fiction vs Fact, the Real Story Behind the REEL Story, and it's a great success! We've done it a number of times and people are still excited to learn, what in fact is, Barnum much more extraordinary life!

gilana22 karma

What is one of your favorite artifacts, and why?

atlasobscura34 karma

With over 80,000 artifacts and documents in the collection, you can imagine how difficult it is to pick one! As much as I enjoy our collection of Jenny Lind (Swedish soprano who toured with Barnum bringing opera to ALL of society) my 'favorite' artifact belonged to the Barnum family. A beautiful reclining Buddha is in our collection of personal materials and it speaks to their passion for culture, art and fascination with the world. Again, remembering that most people didn't have the opportunity to explore the wold in the mid 19th century, it represents a celebration of our global community.

sympathetic-storm21 karma

My Grandmother’s father dipped town when my grandma was young (1912?). The circus (Barnum & Bailey) happened to be in town then. The family always thought he ran away with the circus. Is there any way to verify this? (Info I have: Keokuk, IA, last name Ainsworth, played trumpet. I think it was around 1912, but could have been later up to 1914?)

atlasobscura44 karma

Oh gracious. What an interesting story. We won’t have that information in our archive, but the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI is an exclusive circus museum and might have route books that feature the names of musicians from those dates! That’s a good place to start! Good luck

Chtorrr18 karma

Is a hotdog a sandwich?

atlasobscura19 karma

:) Sure, why not!

tolman8r14 karma

I just want to congratulate you for turning the crisis into a great marketing tool. Mr. Barnum would be proud!

What's your favorite story about Barnum?

Mine is:

"Barnum attracted customers by using various methods of creative advertising, such as hiring a man to lay a path of stray bricks for inquisitive folks to follow to his museum."

Who better to attract to your museum than the naturally inquisitive?

atlasobscura10 karma

How kind are you and all the ‘well-wishers’ on Reddit! Thank you for your encouraging words! Yes...there were only 2 options: Close up - OR - Breathe deep, Figure it out, and get it done! We opted for ‘get it done’ and haven’t looked back. It’s in that point of total vulnerability you can find creativity and courage. And from that, the Barnum is re-emerging better than ever!

Thanks for sharing your story! Yes, that’s hilarious! My favorite...humm….When Barnum was lecturing on Temperance in New Orlean (on tour with Jenny Lind) a heckler yelled out “Barnum, does drink affect you internally or externally”....Barnum responded immediately “ETERNALLY”! The crowd went wild with applause! Brilliant!

Nuroman12 karma

Was all of the staff able to safely make it to the Egress?

atlasobscura8 karma

YES! Yes! Thank you so much! Everyone was safe!

schultjh11 karma

What's a crisis situation like at a museum? This might be morbid, but on one hand, get the people out; on the other, artifacts are important. How do you juggle that?

atlasobscura16 karma

That is such a thoughtful question, thank you. It was and continues to be a vital juggle. I am so happy to tell you we had very few public guests at the Museum the day the tornado hit and everyone got out safely. The small but mighty staff were all accounted for and we went into immediate disaster management. We worked very closely with our City Emergency Management team, police and fire department. We were part of AIC Cert (a federal emergency responder for Museum and Cultural sites) so we had our 'people' at the center of response. PTSD is real and for the couple of us who are still here from that day, we always reflect on trauma concerns and needs. Thank you for asking such a kind question.

Waldemere10 karma

Just wondering why Bridgeport wasn’t mentioned in the movie or a scene shot in the Iranistan room at the museum?

atlasobscura15 karma

Yes, we were kinda wondering that too. We received a few calls from set designers, particularly regarding Barnum’s ‘saloon’ across the street from the American Museum….did I mention that Barnum was one of the country’s leading Temperance Champions? And Saint Paul’s church, a landmark in NYC, was across the street from the American Museum and is still there today! Back to Bridgeport….the only reference is the small note when he meets Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb)....and Bethel, CT (Barnum’s birthplace) is never mentioned. It is funny to me, that as lovely as the Woolworth Mansion on Long Island is (where the mansion scenes were shot) if FAR less fascinating than what Iranistan was! Cause, seriously...who would have actually believed Iranistan?!

joannie_pepperoni8 karma

What got you into this job?

atlasobscura19 karma

Funny you should ask...the first time I was asked to join the Barnum, I turned it down! The Museum came back to me with an opportunity to be the Museum liaison for a re-envisioning...this was back in 1998. THAT sounded interesting. I knew I had to get up to speed on Barnum...I took his autobiography with me on a plane to Vegas (pre-tv screens I’m horrified to admit) and I literally had laugh out loud moments! I was hooked. Came on board. Became the Curator, and after 3 directors, said ‘I’m doing this myself’ and took the Exec Dir job in 2005. Never thinking I’d be a national model for disaster recovery a mere 5 years later! Ta da :)

museumingabout5 karma

Do you ever plan to create a traveling exhibition so other museums may share your collection with their communities?

atlasobscura8 karma

I’m so happy to tell you that we often send artifacts out on loan for exhibitions.

Tufts University (Barnum is actually a founding member of Tufts! Go Jumbo’s!) borrow objects for their Jumbo exhibition and the Peabody at Yale borrowed our 4,000 year old mummy for their Echoes of Egypt exhibition. The idea of creating an exclusive traveling exhibition has been considered but our limited staff and our ongoing restoration has been our primary focus. HOWEVER!!! We received a series of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to DIGITIZE over 1,000 artifact making our collection accessible word-wide! You can go onto our website: and click on COLLECTIONS. That was our far-reaching solution! Enjoy and hats off to the NEH!

DeadGuy9405 karma

What are the extremes in the collection...rarest, most expensive, etc?

atlasobscura12 karma

All Museum collections are indispensable! The Museum has the largest collection of Tom Thumb material in the world. From his Napoleon costume to his carriages. On the other extreme, we have a skeletal assembly of a mythological Centaur! Believe it or not :)

museumingabout5 karma

Do you really only have three people on staff there? How is that possible with a collection of that size and importance?

atlasobscura10 karma

Yes. We have 3 full time staff and 2 part time. A small and dedicated team of volunteers helps fill gaps. These are exceptional people charged with courage and resilience. We have managed to keep moving the ball down the field everyday because we believe in the revitalization and we are committed to the community. The community has demonstrated their caring for the Museum, it’s a place of pride. And for us...that’s what inspires us to forge onward! That, and I got no ‘quit’ in me!

museumingabout1 karma

You all should be proud. You've accomplished a lot with a VERY small staff. I thought our staff here was small - and we have about 20 FT! :O I've always loved the Barnum Museum (I went to UB) and will keep following you guys on your journey. Keep up the amazing work.

atlasobscura3 karma

Oh thank you so much! Yes, it has been an extraordinary journey, but a journey so worth taking. The small staff are truly outstanding. I will admit though, everyday I look forward to being back to full operations again. And UB! A great friend to the Museum and we partner with professors and students often. I’m also happy to tell you the facilities dept of UB were among the first responders to the Museum after the tornado. Just love’m. Thank you so much !

ArchDucky4 karma

When traveling do the clowns all go in a single car?

atlasobscura3 karma

Wow….I hope so!

Amarettosaurus4 karma

“Tornados don’t typically happen in CT” except for the other day, apparently!

So I’m a bad Nutmegger and didn’t know you guys even existed, but now I’m really interested in taking a day trip (outside of Hartford here). I looked on your website and got kind of confused on hours. Are you open on the weekends?

atlasobscura4 karma

No worries Nutmegger! We’d love to have you visit! So sorry for the confusion about hours. We have our Special Events Gallery (that was not impacted by the tornado) open on Thursday and Friday from 11-3. We are open on Saturday beginning in June 11-3. We also do special programming throughout the year on weekend and week nights. All this whilst keeping the historic building a working construction site! Looking forward to your visit and do tell our tour guide that you found the Barnum on Reddit!

TheScribe863 karma

What exhibit do you have at the museum that was thought by the public to be fake for the longest time?

atlasobscura19 karma

Great question! Barnum's first Museum burnt down in 1865. The original collections are lost. HOWEVER! The 'fake' exhibit, the FeJee Mermaid was Barnum's most famous (1840s). Barnum borrowed the Mermaid from his Museum colleague, Moses Kimball in Boston. Barnum created amazing media hype and excited thousands of people to come and see the actual Mermaid from FeJee! Barnum himself recounts it was 'not his best' moment and to the end of his life never wanted to fool the public that way again. Barnum sent the Mermaid back to Kimball....guess what....the Kimball collection was donated to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University where it still is today! So the FeJee Mermaid...fake or not...lives on!


This probably will get buried but may as well go for it. But I was born in Bridgeport and lived there till I was 4 and my parents left because they city just wasn't good. So I havent been back in awhile.

So my question is. How is the city now, and how do you think Barnum would think of city today? And where do you think Bridgeport is headed for the future?

atlasobscura4 karma

Well nice to meet you! Ah yes, Bridgeport has had its challenges indeed. But I’m happy to tell you that there are absolutely wonderful things moving forward in the City. Focusing on our vision plans, we are working with an amazing team of historic preservation specialists and remarkable designers. What leads us forward is answering the ‘key’ question…’what would Barnum do’ we’re creating what will be the first immersive history museum in the north east. The Barnum will be a destination up the corridor and we’re excited to be one of the City’s emerging attractions. New restaurants, theaters, the Arena, Beardsley Zoo so many things to help redefine Bridgeport from years past. Keep your eye on us! And PLEASE come and visit!

StuffHobbes3 karma

How does your museum collect its antiquities? Are the purchase, donated, etc? Thanks!

atlasobscura6 karma

Thank you for asking! We collect very specifically with a strict Collections Management Policy guiding acquisition. Purchase is very rare. Most are donated and in a rare occasion we have Museum Transfer accessions.

MoshiMaster182 karma

My school put on a musical just last month that was about just that: Barnum’s ambition and a museum in ruins. If you’ve seen it, how historically accurate do you think it is?

atlasobscura5 karma

Well congrats! The Barnum musical is a great show to put on! Much like the movie, it’s not terribly accurate either. The play takes you down a very limited path and doesn’t (really can’t) get into the major complexities of Barnum's life and times. The Jenny Lind affair is always an ‘eye-roller’ for me. So made up! So the play, like the movie accomplish a great thing...they spark curiosity and they direct someone like you, to the Museum for historic detail! And that’s wonderful! There is so much written about Barnum by many very notable scholars if you want to learn more. You are welcome to write us at the Museum and we’ll send you a bibliography and do go to the website and go to the Collections field for more information. Thank you so much for you question and I hope you had a wonderful time watching your school musical!

reverber8-2 karma

Why not move the museum somewhere with less terrible weather?

atlasobscura12 karma

Ahhh. Would that were possible! The Barnum Museum was Mr. Barnum last Museum and donated to the citizens of Connecticut and beyond. In 1972, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was elevated to National Significance in 2010 A MONTH BEFORE THE TORNADO!!! Last year, we were notified by the Department of the Interior and National Parks Service that we've repaired the historic building enough (it's not fully repaired right now, but stable and restoration continues) that it is now under consideration for National Historic Landmark designation! That means it will be one of the country's most important historic sites....and cannot be moved. That said, we work with all our emergency readiness teams to ensure we are all prepared as possible as we face ongoing major storms!