Barnum recovery is a long haul

Bridgeport is not exactly known as the tornado capitol of the United States, but a surprise twister in June 2010, nearly five years ago, tore through the city in what is now remembered as the storm that shut down the Barnum Museum.

The late Victorian era stone and brick museum, at 820 Main Street downtown, was heavily damaged by the rare tornado. It racked up roughly $20 million in repair and restoration costs, with ongoing work underway that has no end in near sight.  It meant the museum had to mostly close its doors.

“The tornado blew the windows out, and there was broken glass and moisture damage everywhere,” said Adrienne Saint-Pierre, the museum’s curator. Nothing’s been the same since. There was structural damage. “The historic building is still closed; it’s off limits to the public,” Saint-Pierre said.

A newer wing, the People’s United Bank Gallery, on the side of the building facing the Webster arena, reopened six months later as an exhibit hall and it is there that many visitors from around the United States still visit, on a limited schedule, to see some of the well-preserved artifacts of P.T. Barnum’s circus career, like miniature stage coaches that belonged to Tom Thumb and his diminutive counterpart, Commodore Nutt.

The tornado presented a fundraising challenge but it wasn’t the end of the line for the museum. Themed events continue to take place there. This year has been no different. Last month, the museum foundation received a $1,498 grant from Connecticut Humanities to support the spring 2015 program series, Animals in American Life: Pets, Performers and Zoos. The grant will help support public programs through the end of May.

Connecticut Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports cultural and historic organizations that tell the state’s stories, build community and enrich lives.

“Attendance is good, we get 40 people or more for each event,” said Saint-Pierre.

Topics range from the history of pets in America, to the story of Jumbo and other 19th century elephants, the history of Beardsley Park and Zoo and zoo-keeping philosophies. Formats include illustrated talks by humanities scholars, informal lunchtime programs featuring rare artifacts from the museum’s collection and a Zoomobile visit with animals.

Kathleen Maher, executive director of the museum, said in a prepared statement that animals is a good theme because they played an important role in P.T. Barnum’s career, even before his years with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“The museum strives to carry on Barnum’s legacy of offering fun ways for people to learn. We especially enjoy sharing the lesser known stories of Barnum’s life and career and several of our programs will do just that. The Animals in American Life speakers are entertaining as well as expert on their topics, and we hope people will come and enjoy these presentations,” Maher said.

The series began March 22 with a talk on the history of pets in America.

April programs have focused on elephants in the 19th Century, beginning with a museum “Sneak Peek” titled Elephants in the Museum! and later with a talk about Jumbo, the larger-than-life celebrity elephant that Barnum purchased from the London Zoo in 1882.

Jumbo, Barnum's elephant star.
Jumbo, Barnum’s elephant star.

May programs will focus on zoos, and feature Bridgeport’s own Beardsley Park and Zoo.  On Wednesday, May 13, at 12:15 p.m., Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo Zoomobile will pay a visit to the museum. Bringing small animals with her, Michelle Gaudreau, a Beardsley Zoo educator, will talk about her traveling companions and other animals at the zoo, and show a variety of animal artifacts that people can explore through touch.

On Sunday, May 17, at 2 p.m., Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo executive director Gregg Dancho will present a program about the National Register of Historic Places site’s early history, beginning with the gift of land to the City of Bridgeport in the 1880s, and its transformation to a professionally staffed, accredited zoo. Dancho’s talk, Beardsley Zoo: A History of Land and Tigers, will also discuss how zoo-keeping philosophies have changed over the years. Dancho will discuss the zoo’s current work to ensure the survival of Siberian (Amur) tigers.

The suggested donation is $5 per person; Barnum Museum members are free and guests are encouraged to also bring a pet food donation. General visits may be made on Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., said Don Swing, business manager for the museum. (Group visits may be arranged with Swing at 203-331-1104.)

One of the Barnum Museum's treasures: Tom Thumb's coach.
One of the Barnum Museum’s treasures: Tom Thumb’s coach.

There are thousands of artifacts on display, including a supposed Centaur skeleton from the 1800s, Swing said.

Saint-Pierre said the fabricated piece, encased in glass, is not really something Barnum owned, but it is in his ball court. “It’s something he would have had at his American Museum in New York City,” she said.

For more information about the programs, please visit  It is there that patrons can also find a place to donate for the long-term project of museum’s restoration, Saint-Pierre said.

“It’s going to take a lot of money. We don’t know when it will be complete,” Saint-Pierre said.