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“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.
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.
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.