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Restoring Bridgeport's Barnum Museum

Davis Dunavin

Nineteenth century showman P.T. Barnum was the father of the American circus. He was also an early mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he developed much of the city’s downtown. And among his wonders is the Barnum Museum.

Its colorful sandstone and terra cotta architecture is a fanciful mix of styles, with a big dome and towers. It certainly stands out from the glass office buildings and banks of downtown Bridgeport. And it’s been closed for five years, since a tornado damaged the building and its 25,000 artifacts, but restoration work is underway. And when the museum reopens, planners say it might look like a 21st century theme park.

Right now, the only space the museum has to house its artifacts is a storeroom attached to the People’s Bank building. The museum itself is off-limits to the public. Most of it is still unsafe to walk around in—the now-empty third floor once held a miniature circus, but now there are holes in the ceiling and floor.

Museum director Kathleen Maher remembers walking through the museum the morning after the tornado in 2010.

“Holy cow, every artifact was blanketed with tornado grit and grime,” she said.

This wasn’t the first time disaster’s struck a Barnum building. Actually, back in the 19th century, it was common. His Bridgeport mansion was an architectural wonder called Iranistan, topped with onion-shaped Turkish-style domes. It burned down. Two of his big performance halls burned down. His big, flagship New York City museum burned down. Twice.

“It just goes on and on,” said Maher. “So why should we be exempt from that legacy?”

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU News
A scale model of Iranistan, Barnum's Bridgeport mansion, at the Barnum Museum.

The building and its artifacts faced broken glass and water damage.

“So when that happens to a 4,000-year-old mummy, it's a desperate situation to save the artifacts," Maher said.

That mummy is one of the many artifacts in the museum that has entertained and amazed generations of kids, since 1893. Steven Millhauser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer who grew up in neighboring Stratford. He used to come to the Barnum museum on field trips back in the 1950s.

“The first thing I remember is a very strange building that looked like a castle. Rounded towers and turrets. It didn’t look like any other building on the block at all,” he said. “Bridgeport was the big city. And the big city had lots of things in it, including the Barnum Museum.”

Millhauser revisited the museum decades later in a short story called, “The Barnum Museum.”

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Barnum's famous Feejee Mermaid: the mummified remains of a baboon, an orangutan, and a fish, sewed together.

“I wanted to write about an impossibly vast building,” he said. “Do I want to write about an infinitely large department store? Some huge skyscraper? No, no — it has to be a museum, and it has to be full of dubious things.”

The real museum is a lot different from Millhauser’s fictional museum. The fictional version went on forever, eventually swallowing all of Bridgeport and its residents. But just like Millhauser’s fictional museum, the real Barnum Museum offers tantalizing glimpses of more to come.

The Victorian architecture, the chandeliers, Persian rugs and ornate banisters and doorways—they may not be on display right now.

But there's still the famous Feejee Mermaid, one of Barnum's most popular wonders. It's not a real mermaid, of course. It's an mummified amalgam of a baboon, orangutan, and fish. And it's ugly. Tour guide Marian O’Keefe has seen a lot of people's reactions to it.

"Watching the people looking in, I'm thinking," she said. "People looking in 150 years ago, their reaction to it. What would they have thought?"

O'Keefe said she thinks as soon as they got over the initial shock and horror, they'd start to explore the rest of the museum, just like people do today. They can see clothes belonging to three-foot circus star Tom Thumb, circus carts, posters, busts of P.T. Barnum, and a centaur skeleton—that's a recent acquisition in the 'dubious things' category.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
A recent addition to the museum: a centaur skeleton.

During his life, Barnum took these kinds of oddities on tour (although, as Maher is quick to point out, he was actually a civic leader first and a showman second; the circus was his retirement job). In 1891, at the end of his life, he started building the museum to house his wonders for future generations.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Circus carts from Barnum and his colleagues.

There's still a lot of fundraising ahead to restore the tornado-damaged museum, most likely years of it, Maher says.

25,000 artifacts went into storage or got sent for restoration work. Eventually they came out into the storeroom, but the building still needs repairs. Maher says they’re also redesigning. They've hired a firm whose clients include places like the Abraham Lincoln Museum, but also Universal Studios. They’ve got an artist’s rendering. It shows kids and parents wandering through something that looks like a Victorian library, but lit up and spotlighted, with a family looking at a hologram of an opera singer.

Credit BRC Imagination Arts
A design spec for a room in the new Barnum Museum from BRC Imagination Arts.

"Some people say it's a little too Disneyesque, in a sense, but for us, that's exactly what Barnum would have done,” said Maher. “So we get hundreds of thousands of people coming to downtown Bridgeport to experience this. And when they leave, they leave more curious. They leave enlightened. They leave illuminated."

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.