‘Objects have stories’ and the Barnum Museum curator often plays detective to dig them up

As curator of the artifact collection and archive at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Adrienne Saint-Pierre wears many hats in her job — not from the museum’s displays though. Having worked in the museum field for 35 years, she enjoys that the work is never boring. There is always something new coming into the collection, artifacts that need better preservation storage, or an inquiry to be researched and answered. Playing detective is among her chief roles.

Andrea Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator?

Adrienne Saint-Pierre: When I was in college in the 1970s, I had no idea what a curator was — even though I had been taken to museums all my life! Not many colleges offered museum studies programs back then, so this was not a career I planned for but it suits me well. To begin with, I really like objects from the past, and from the time I was young I was fascinated by anything to do with textiles and costume. As it turns out, my educational background in interdisciplinary studies is a good fit, because history is connected to every discipline, and I think the best exhibitions try to present that kind of broader perspective.

Valluzzo: How has the pandemic impacted your work?

Saint-Pierre: We are fortunate we were able to catalog and digitize a significant part of our collection and make it available online through the Connecticut Digital Archive at UConn, thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant we received in 2016-2018. Having these resources available to global audiences, with great tools that allow researchers to virtually turn pages, zoom in on details, etc. is really a godsend right now. We also have a collections database I can access online, and both these tools help me answer the numerous inquiries we receive from all over.

Valluzzo: What is your favorite object/artwork in the museum’s collection and why?

Saint-Pierre: Like having to choose a favorite child — that seems impossible to answer! In addition to artifacts that pertain to P. T. Barnum and his famous associates, the museum has many items that were given in the 1890s and early 1900s when the museum was the Barnum Institute of Science and History. So there are many artifacts people would be surprised we have: things from the Civil War, items made by Inuit peoples, Samurai armor, even biological specimens. One of the most amazing things to me is a handwritten newspaper — which actually looks like it was printed — and was the work of a Bridgeport man held prisoner in Tyler, Texas, who managed to do four of them without getting caught. Among our Barnum-related artifacts, a miniature jacket in scarlet and navy wool worn by Gen. Tom Thumb is one of my favorites. It probably dates to when Charles Stratton (“Tom Thumb”) was about 11 or 12 years old, around 1849-1850. It’s a “lucky survivor” as it was in an attic for many years in a Milford house and could easily have ended up being thrown out. Fortunately, the donor knew what it was and called the museum — and that was just in 2014!

Valluzzo: I hear part of your job involves playing detective?

Saint-Pierre: Objects have stories to tell and part of my job is to figure out what those stories are and find ways to share them with people. There may be strong clues contained in the artifact itself. Sometimes the donors of the artifact can offer clues or even related documents, but often there is only vague or general information… Determining which clues are valid and assembling them in a logical and coherent way is a bit like piecing together a puzzle. An important part of filling out the story involves understanding the context (the time, place, prevalent attitudes) in which the object was made or used — you have to train yourself to step away from seeing things from your own perspective. Now there are so many more research tools online that can help ferret out information, but inevitably there are objects that remain a bit mysterious, and it can take years to piece together their stories.

The museum’s Egyptian mummy is a great example of how a team of experts using medical science technologies completely changed our interpretation. Even now, more than a decade later, we are still on that “journey of discovery.” The mummified remains were a “favorite” of many visitors who knew them as Pa-ib, a male priest about 60 years old. That was the story for well over 100 years but turned out to be completely wrong — based on clues in the coffin’s hieroglyphics, not on the actual body. With the benefit of CT scans and input from several experts, we learned this was a young woman, in her 30s, who probably lived in a much earlier time period than the coffin.

For more information about offerings at the Barnum Museum, visit barnum-museum.org.