Sunday, June 14, 2009

The American Museum

The American Museum from 1853

The following excerpt is of a translation from one of Henri de Büren's letters regarding P.T. Barnum's American Museum. It must have been quite the place.

"Speaking of the Barnum museum, one must keep in mind our European museums are founded by cities or funded by individuals. Our science at home is liberal; in America, it is totally different. The cities here are not willing to build monuments to science, or are doing it very imperfectly, but it is individuals... who take care of the whole thing inspired by the immense curiosity the inhabitants of this country have... Therefore, there is nothing less scientific than the American museums and most of the time they show a collection of items which are never classified nor arranged with taste but rather to attract your curiosity, through rarity, weirdness of shapes, and distant origin. They purchase whatever is not too expensive but is spectacular.

What interested me the most, was neither a group of cardboard monkeys playing the violin, nor a little child in alabaster sleeping on top of roses, nor hundreds of daubs showing distinguished citizens, but rather the harmony that reigned in a large cage where together were all different kinds of animals, with different habits and natures, two cats, three or four monkeys, white mice, eagles, owls, blackbirds and finally a lot of other animals whose names, I don't remember. All of them live together in the best possible terms. This cage is indeed very interesting and I still have not figured out how it is possible for this society to live together. There is also a comedy troupe attached to the establishment, whose showings were much less interesting than the said cage. The Barnum museum is located on the Broadway, that is to say in the most exhilarating neighborhood in New York. It is a large building at the corner on a square, with a balcony where, each night, a group of musicians, attract the populace to venture inside."

An overview from "The Lost Museum"
P.T. Barnum's American Museum, located from 1841 to 1865 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, has been long recognized by historians as a pivotal institution in the development of nineteenth-century urban culture. Barnum purchased the museum from John Scudder in 1841. Foreshadowing trends in American commercial amusement, the Museum gathered exhibitions and amusements that previously had been offered in separate milieus. In an urban culture characterized by increasing difference—in taste, in subject, and in audience—it was the first to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions," from the patchwork Fejee Mermaid to the diminutive and articulate Tom Thumb. But the Museum also promoted educational ends, including natural history in its menageries, aquaria, and taxidermy exhibits; history in its paintings, wax figures, and memorabilia; and temperance reform and Shakespearean dramas in its "Lecture Room" or theater. Thus the museum drew its audience from a wide range of social classes and strove to assure that the lecture room and salons would be one of the few respectable public spaces for middle-class women.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like an important museum in its day -- something that would be great fun to reconstruct in, say, a period film set in NYC in the mid-1850s.

    I just found your website after being out of touch with the blogging world for several months. (Had problems w my Wordpress software.) I remember your emailing me about your project, which sounds like a wonderful exercise in historical/self/family discovery.

    I have a very distant relation to an explorer who also made his mark on South America. I'm descended from the brother of Sir Francis Drake, who (among other things) burned Cartagena to the ground. I've sometimes though that I'd like to do SFD's grand tour and reconstruct his life as a pirate/privateer. A great project for my next life. :)

    Best of luck with your work.
    An American in Lima


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