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Attract First, Please Later: Museum Design Lessons from P.T. Barnum

barnum.jpgPhineas Taylor Barnum never really said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” (that’s an urban legend, sucker) but the idea does seem to have been at the core of his business model. Although forever associated with the circus, Barnum spent a substantial part of his career as a museum director in Manhattan, attracting 38 million paying visitors to his American Museum between 1841 and 1865 (a time when the population of the United States was under 32 million).

“I don’t believe in duping the public,” said Barnum. “But I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” In his recent New York Times article on the ur-huckster, John Strausbaugh lists the “stupefying exhibits and activities” that filled the five floors of Barnum’s American Museum:

Dioramas, panoramas, “cosmoramas,” scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant, an oyster bar, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey’s torso with a fish’s tail), a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, midgets, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

After reading this, we were filled with questions: Did the circus fleas ever infest the canine weaver? Did the taxidermists, surrounded by exotic live animal specimens, engage in foul play? But just as were preparing to investigate the fate of Ned the learned seal (How learned was he? Did he have offspring? Would they fit in our bathtub?), we kept reading, only to learn that the museum burned down in a fiery blaze in 1865. Strausbaugh comes through with a stunner of an epilogue: “Barnum’s vast collection was destroyed, the whales boiled in their tank, and exotic animals roamed Manhattan’s streets for days afterward.” We apologize in advance for the boiling whale nightmares you’re going to have tonight.

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