Deal Me In, Week 18 ~ “The Barnum Museum”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser

Card picked: Two of Diamonds

From: The Barnum Museum


Less of a story and more of a detailed description of a Barnum Museum that doesn’t quite exist and the people who are drawn to it.

Not what we’re talking about. (Image by GK tramrunner on en.wikipedia)

In reality there are two Barnum Museums. If you google Barnum Museum, the primary result is a beautiful building in Connecticut that P. T. Barnum had built to house the Bridgeport Scientific Society and the Fairfield County Historical Society. Unfortunately, the societies didn’t survive financially. The building was closed in 1943 and reopened in the 1960s as a museum to Barnum the man.

The Barnum museum that Millhauser is alluding to is Barnum’s American Museum. Built in 1841 in New York City, it housed attractions both educational and sensational. The five story museum displayed both the Fiji mermaid and had an aquarium big enough to house a white whale. Chang and Eng were on “display” a room away from historical dioramas. There was a lavish theater where performers of every type put on their acts. It was criticized by the morally upstanding for its spectacle. It was immensely popular with everyone else. It dramatically burnt to the ground in 1865.

This is more like it.

Millhauser’s story is kind of a mashup of these two museums. His Barnum Museum still stands and architecturally has some of the attributes of the Connecticut museum, except in greater quantity and more fantastical. The displays, or rather inhabitants, are more mythical too. Three mermaids in a pool, a griffin in a cage, and a man with a flying carpet are among the detailed recitation of attractions. Steven Millhauser is joining Bret Easton Ellis in the pantheon of authors who can bring an enormous amount of detail to bear. The controversy surrounding Millhauser’s Barnum Museum is not whether it’s morally questionable to gawk at bare-breasted mermaids, but rather, if such mermaids are real as they seem to be, would such wonderment make the world outside the museum meaningless? And if they’re fake, are they still not wonderful due to the amount of effort that goes into such deception? (I’d say that the answer to that second question is a test as to whether a person appreciates or hates knowing the secrets behind magic tricks.)

Millhauser does give us one named character, but we only spend a few hundred words with her. Hannah is shy, mousy, and intelligent, and she becomes a frequenter of the museum. Like others, she seems to be seeking knowledge from the fantastical, or the lies behind it all.

6 thoughts on “Deal Me In, Week 18 ~ “The Barnum Museum”

  1. Pingback: Deal Me In – Week 18 Wrap Up | Bibliophilopolis

  2. Candiss

    This sounds really interesting. I love reading about collections – of curios, antiques, art, etc. – so this one definitely piques my interest.

  3. Dale

    “…if such mermaids are real as they seem to be, would such wonderment make the world outside the museum meaningless?”

    I love stories that ask questions like this! Even if the stories don’t give exact answers, asking the questions is great.

  4. Jay

    What a magnificent destination The Barnum Museum must’ve been in its heyday! What a shame it burned down. I love your one “It was criticized by the morally upstanding for its spectacle. It was immensely popular with everyone else.” Isn’t that always the way? 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Best I Read in 2014 | The Writerly Reader

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.