The Presentation of Freaks

A Collection of Barnum's FreaksBEFORE viewing Barnum's freaks it is important to understand the various types of freaks he exhibited along with the mode of presentation. During the heyday of Barnum's American Museum two types of freaks were commonly exhibited: tribal people, or previously undiscovered new and unknown races, and lusus naturae, or people born with demonstrable differences.1 Along with these two types of freaks there are additional subcategories such as born freaks or people born with physical abnormalities like Siamese twins, made freaks or people who do something to make themselves unusual like covering their bodies in tattoos, and the novelty act which involved an unusual performance like sword swallowing.

Barnum's What Is It? Exhibit A key component to the construction of a type of freak is the mode of presentation. The exotic mode of presentation was often used to exhibit so-called tribal people.2 The exhibit backdrop might include paper mache boulders and faux tropical plants in order to exoticize and "enfreak" the human. Within this hyperbolized environment the inferiority and "otherness" of the person within the exhibit is emphasized. Barnum's infamous "What Is It?" exhibit is a classic example of the use of the exotic mode of presentation. William Henry Johnson, a mentally disabled African-American man assumed the role of "What Is It?" for many years. He was often displayed in a handmade fur suit amidst a fake exotic background where he would run around and grunt to the delight of the audience.

General Tom Thumb performingBarnum also used the aggrandized mode of presentation. This method of exhibiting freaks "endowed the freak with status enhancing characteristics" that "emphasized how the freak was an upstanding high-status person with talents of a conventional and socially prestigious nature."3 One of Barnum's most famous exhibits, General Tom Thumb, relied heavily upon the aggrandized method of presentation. Stratton was a midget, and Barnum immediately saw the opportunity to profit from Stratton's disability. Barnum gave Stratton an embellished name, changed his place of birth from Connecticut to England, and a star was born. Inherent in the aggrandized mode was the performance which typically consisted of a musical song and dance act. Tom Thumb is pictured here performing one of his many roles, which ranged from Napoleon Bonaparte to cupid.

As you enter the exhibit room you will notice how many of the exhibits blur the line between normative boundaries by utilizing these methods of presentation. The exhibit room contains some of Barnum's most well-known freaks such as the Bearded Lady and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. Enjoy the show…

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