Cartoon Image of a Humbug
Cartoon image of Barnum as a "humbug."
GIVEN the high-class status the museum earned the question arises as to why patrons were willing to pay to see spurious exhibits like the Feejee Mermaid. During his time, Barnum was often accused of pandering "humbug" in his museum, yet he thrived on the fact that accusations of "humbug" garnered him more profit. Barnum intimated years later "Now and then someone would cry out "humbug" and "charlatan" but so much the better for me. It helped to advertise me, and I was willing to bear the reputation."24 In what Neil Harris describes as the "operational aesthetic" he claims "Barnum's audiences found the encounter with potential frauds exciting. It was a form of intellectual exercise, stimulating even when literal truth could not be determined."25

Harris continues, "Barnum understood that people enjoyed the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity, to discover how deception had been practiced, and was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself." 26 Thus, the museum allowed anyone to be a potential scientist and generated a discourse in which people could question these new visually stimulating human curiosities. Part of the natural desire to explain what is unfamiliar and what is not like the "normal" individual comes from the physical differences the freaks exuded. In creating this discourse of difference patrons positioned themselves and their bodies in opposition to the freaks.

Barnum's Museum on fire
Barnum's American Museum on fire in 1865.

On July 13, 1865 the museum burned to the ground after enjoying a successful 24-year run under Barnum's watchful eye. Following this disaster, Barnum ventured into several joint-partnership museum enterprises, but none of them enjoyed the same success as the American Museum. In the 1880's Barnum hoped to establish a museum that would surpass the size of what had been the American Museum. The five-story museum was to be located between Madison Avenue and Fourth Avenue and it would cover an entire city block.27 Due to the profundity of this project Barnum was never able to realize his grandiose museum to beat all museums. Perhaps the lecture room motto of "We study to please" sums up Barnum's impetus for running the museum in the first place. Under the guise of education, Barnum knew that the museum would remain successful only with an ever-changing display of curiosities and wonders. The museum itself was a marketing marvel born of a man who understood the public's need to see and to be entertained. Barnum's acumen for smart advertising and panache for catering to the publics' own desires established the American Museum as the apex of cultural spectacle.

Barnum's signature

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