When the National Parks System Advisory Board meets in October, it will vote on whether to place Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum, previously known as the Barnum Institute of Science and History, on the list of National Historical Landmarks (NHL). The designation would make the museum Bridgeport’s first NHL and end the museum’s nearly 20-year long quest to be placed on the list.
“This has been a really unusual and long journey.” said Kathleen Maher, the museum’s executive director, who noted that it usually takes about three to four months to receive NHL status after the advisory board holds an initial review and issues an initial recommendation.
According to Maher, when she arrived at the museum in 1998 as a curator, she assumed the museum was already on the NHL. But when the museum applied for a grant from Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services that seeks to preserve historic buildings and collections, between 2003 and 2004, they discovered that the museum is not on the NHL.
The museum is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), an official list compiled by the federal government that lists sites, buildings, and other objects deemed worthy of preservation for their historical significance or artistic value. It was placed there in 1972, not just because of the significance of the building’s Romanesque architecture but because of its connection to entrepreneur and entertainer P.T. Barnum, who not only donated the land to house the Bridgeport Scientific Society and the Fairfield County Society, but bequeathed $100,000 for construction of the building shortly before his death.
The building opened in February 1893, originally operating as a resource library and lecture hall but fell into the hands of the city in 1933, which reopened it as the Barnum Museum in 1936. But it was not until 1965 that the museum opened as a functioning museum, including exhibits on the history of Bridgeport and Barnum’s life.
According to Maher, it didn’t make sense that the building was on the NRHP but not listed as a NHL, so she contacted Connecticut’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which administers federal and state programs that protect historic sites and is Connecticut’s governing authority on NHL.
“We found out then that after the Barnum Museum was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, nobody ever wrote an amendment to recognize it as a nationally significant site.” said Maher. Both she and SHPO realized that needed to be fixed.
With the help of former Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi, who helped secure a grant to put together a national significance package so the museum could submit itself for NHL consideration, and the help of the SHPO office, the Museum submitted it application to the National Park Service (NPS) in 2009. According to Maher, NPS contacted the museum in May 2010 to say that the building had been elevated to national significance, the first step in placing it on the NHL list.
“We were thrilled.” said Maher. “We said let’s get a grant in to get the NHL, which is a deep dive, academic document.”
But then, in June 2010, Bridgeport was hit by an EF-1 tornado, which badly damaged not only the museum’s building but the collections it housed. Shortly after, Maher said the museum was contacted by NPS to say that the NHL designation couldn’t move forward because the building no longer had the structural integrity required for consideration.
“So that got taken away, but our unyielding efforts to save the buildings remained.” said Maher, who added that the museum began reconstruction with the help of SHPO grants, funding from Bridgeport, and fundraising efforts.
In early 2016, the museum received an email from the NPS, which noted they’d done a good job rebuilding, and after having spoken with SHPO, were ready to put together a package to once again submit the museum for NHL consideration.
The museum began working on the package, but reductions in NPS funding in budgets passed during former president Donald Trump’s administration led to National Parks System Advisory Board being temporarily disbanded.
“Our hands were tied. We can’t move forward without anyone to read the proposals.” said Maher.
In the meantime, Maher said, federal Rep. Jim Himes, D-CT, helped the museum through his Bridgeport office.
The advisory board was put back together in 2020 and during an October 21, 2021 meeting, the Barnum Museum’s NHL nomination was heard once again. After a back and forth discussion, the board voted unanimously to move towards the final stage. The museum was asked to make several tweaks to its package and did, according to Maher.
However, one more hurdle remained. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland didn’t appoint new members to the advisory board until May 24, 2023, preventing the museum’s NHL designation being finalized.
According to Maher, the museum received notice last week that the advisory board had been assembled and a decision on the museum’s final NHL designation will be made at its August 13 meeting. Until then, the museum has nothing to do but wait.
“We’ve done our work, and when it gets to that level, we’re pretty confident.” said Maher, who is “very, very optimistic” but cautious given the museum’s past difficulties.
Maher also said the museum was lucky to receive a Save America’s Treasures grant in late 2021. Only landmarks and pending landmarks are eligible to receive the grant. The museum received a half a million dollars to restore and repair the building’s 79 windows, which it is currently in the process of doing.
“It’s in cycle right now, and we’re very lucky that we proved enough of a case that the status of our NHL was pending.” said Maher.
While Bridgeport has many historic landmarks, the museum would be the first NHL, which Maher described as a “point of pride for the city.” Receiving the designation not only means the museum is eligible to receive more grants, but means the museum will become a component of the NPS hub, earning it a “blue ribbon” status that will hopefully see it become a bigger destination.
Of the museum’s nearly 20-year journey to try to obtain NHL status, Maher praised the “stick-to-itiveness and determination” of the museum staff, as well as local and federal officials who have provided support.
“I thank everyone who’s really stuck with us.” said Maher.