Hudspeth: P.T. Barnum is worthy of celebration

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Unlike Walt Disney whose brother Roy saw to it that Walt’s legacy and his ways of doing business in keeping with his founding focus were preserved after Walt’s death, P.T. Barnum had no one to play that role for him in preserving the foundational elements of his vision after his death. What evolved as a result have often been caricatures of his real life, as in the very popular 2017 film “The Greatest Showman.”

The P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport does its best to dispel that misinformation and replace fiction with fact about his life and times. To that end, the Museum’s Executive Director, Kathy Maher, spoke via Zoom to a large audience in a session of Wilton Historical Society’s and Wilton Library’s joint series on American history. This, the series’ fourteenth year, was focused on “Creativity in Connecticut,” and P.T. Barnum was, rightly of course, one of its subjects.

Maher used the occasion to dispel some of the fiction perpetuated in the movie and in other media about P.T. Barnum but also to illuminate how extraordinary he was in so many dimensions and what a significant force for the good he was for our country in his time and beyond. Maher told her audience how people come through the Museum (in pre-COVID times and resuming this summer) in huge numbers singing those catchy Barnum-movie songs and anxious to know more about this remarkable man. Talk about being able to reach people, young and old, at a teachable moment! The Museum uses that “moment” to explain why few in our state’s history are more deserving of high recognition as an American hero.

P.T. Barnum is worthy of celebration certainly for the creations he brought both to America and the world but also and especially for his remarkable character as reflected in his passionate support of crucial causes of his age. Barnum was a native-born Nutmegger, though his fame and influence spread nationwide and then worldwide. He was truly multifaceted: an inventive entrepreneur in the mid-19th century well before Edison, Bell and Carnegie, he was also a leading figure in the abolitionist movement and friend of Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley. In fact, he was so prominent in the abolitionist movement that in 1865 as the Civil War was ending, frustrated Southern sympathizers torched his world-renowned museum in New York City in retaliation for his strong anti-slavery advocacy and burnt it to the ground. He responded by rebuilding his museum into what later became Madison Square Garden.

Barnum’s approach to providing entertainment was through a museum for “all the people” in an age in which public performances were universally limited to adult-male-only admission and not usually expected to be “G” rated. But his museum admitted everyone, including women and children, and programming was aimed at being educational as well as entertaining. To reinforce the welcome to children and women, smoking and drinking of alcohol within the museum were prohibited. Anyone who wanted to do either would have to go outside and pay again for admission (25 cents) if they wanted to return.

His exhibits and acts introduced viewers to information from around the world, and his collection of what some would call strange human oddities he referred to as “marvels of nature” and refused to stigmatize. That put him way ahead of his time - sadly even now… He also strove to make his museum and its programs available to all whatever their income level, and when he went on the road across the nation in almost 100 performances with his luminous operatic star “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, he and she made sure that her programs were also given free at orphanages and in other settings where those who could not afford the steep admission price for her concerts could still hear her perform.

The Barnum Museum’s programming carries its visitors beyond the life of the man and into the life of his age and what he brought to that age in such important and transformative ways. The good news is that the film as well as Barnum’s general name recognition have driven large numbers to the Museum, anxious to learn more about him; there, much real education can and does happen.

The Museum offers a modern-day corrective to shine real historical light upon P.T. Barnum’s life and legacy. It does so in such an engaging and entertaining -- as well as informative -- way as to bring historical learning to life, just as Kathy Maher did for her very appreciative Wilton audience.