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The Greatest Show in Bridgeport

Historic Connecticut: P.T. Barnum Museum

 
Business New Haven
11/13/2006
by Priscilla Searles  
The world's only museum dedicated to the life and times of Phineas Taylor Barnum, Bridgeport's Barnum Museum pays tribute to his varied career as entrepreneur, politician, journalist, museum owner, founder of "The Greatest Show on Earth," and major benefactor to his adopted Park City.

Before his death in 1891, Barnum bequeathed $100,000 for the establishment of the Barnum Institute of Science & History. The purpose was to give the Bridgeport Scientific Society and the Fairfield County Historical Society a place to store and maintain their collections.

Designed by architectural firm Longstaff & Herd, the building opened on February 18, 1893. One of the city's most distinctive architectural structures, it is a mix of Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic styles.

Illustrated in relief panels across the top of the building are images from various periods in America's history: the Native American, early settler, maritime, Civil War and industrial. Busts portray a Native American, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Elias Howe, Civil War Gen. Winfield Scott and President Grover Cleveland.

Undergoing a number of transitions over the decades, the facility was renamed the P.T. Barnum Museum in 1968, focusing on topics that related to the city's history and the Barnum circus. In 1986 the buildings underwent a $7.5 million renovation, reopening three years later as a greatly expanded museum.

Every corner of the museum reflects Barnum's influence on Bridgeport, including the re-creation of his library from his waterfront mansion, Iranistan, to 19th-century culture and industry in Bridgeport.

A climb to the third floor gives visitors a birds-eye view of the circus, including everything from the Big Top to circus animals and wagons, thanks to a 1,000-square-foot, 3/4-inch scale model of a five-ring circus. Hand carved by William Brinley of Meriden, the exhibit includes more than 3,000 miniature sculptures.

Also on the third floor is an exhibit devoted to General Tom Thumb, one of the most famous of Barnum's acts. Furniture, clothing and personal objects that belonged to Thumb (born Charles Stratton in Bridgeport) and his wife Lavinia Warren are on display as well as miniature carriages that belonged to Thumb and Barnum performer, Commodore Nutt.

Egyptian mummy Pa-Ib is the oldest artifact in the museum, donated in 1892 by Barnum's second wife, Nancy. Under the guidance of Quinnipiac University personnel, Pa-Ib took a trip to a radiology laboratory in Fairfield, complete with police escort, for scanning and tests to prove her authenticity.

Owned by the city of Bridgeport, the museum is operated by a non-profit foundation. In 1972, the museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Located at 820 Main Street, Bridgeport, the Barnum Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Monday and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information visit www.barnum-museum.org.