After a 19-year journey, the Barnum Museum in downtown Bridgeport has officially been designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of designation available from the National Parks Service. The museum now joins other Connecticut landmarks like the Mark Twain House and the state’s capitol building as well as national monuments like Mount Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge.
To celebrate the occasion, museum leadership decided to throw a party for the community. The event, which was only slightly hindered by midday rain, gathered representatives from other Bridgeport cultural tentpoles, including the public library, the aquarium, and Sacred Heart’s Discovery Museum, among others.
“But this has been an extraordinarily long journey for the Barnum Museum and I can’t tell you how touched I am to see so many friends and colleagues who are with us today to celebrate this,” said Kathy Maher, Executive Director for the museum.
The festivities also included circus arts performers and art activities for kids and adults alike.
The road to get here was long, explained Maher, who has served as Executive Director since 1998. After receiving a place on the National Register of Historic Places, the application to become a landmark was derailed, first by a tornado that greatly damaged the museum, then by policy decisions from the Trump Administration, and finally by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the guests in attendance at Thursday’s festivities was Eleanor Biggs who, in addition to serving as a member of the museum’s board, is also P.T. Barnum’s great-great-great-granddaughter.
“A national landmark designation, that is huge. That says everything in those four words,” said Briggs. “It’s an architectural treasure and it’s also so dignified and it’s so solid and it’s so beautiful in its own way, but it’s also special because of its purpose. And we can’t lose sight of what’s in there. It’s preserving the legacy of an American icon.”
P.T. Barnum, who most know from his early career popularizing circuses and “freak shows” featuring acts like Tom Thumb and conjoined twins Cheng and Eng, also served as mayor of Bridgeport in his later years, then served as a state representative. The building which houses the museum stands as the last building attributed to him, according to the museum’s literature.
The museum is currently closed to visitors as it undergoes a multi-year, multi-million dollar restoration and construction project to repair the façade. While it provided the backdrop to the day’s events, it was covered by scaffolding. Still museum leaders are looking forward to the future of the museum, promising a more immersive experience in the future and many more years telling the stories of the Prince of Humbug.