Mr. Barnum on Museums, The Nation, August 10, 1865

When The Nation attacked the American Museum in an anonymously authored article on July 27, 1865, Barnum responded immediately, firing back this letter to the editors. He defended his need to make a profit from his museum which, unlike those in Britain, was not supported by government funds, and vigorously defended himself against charges of vulgarity in his Lecture Room dramas and attractions. Barnum concludes the letter by outlining his plans for his next museum, a defiant rejoinder to the editors of The Nation who had been happy to see it gone.


BRIDGEPORT, Conn., July 29, 1865

TO THE EDITOR OF THE NATION:

THE NATION is just the journal our "nation" needed, and it delights thousands besides my humble self. But the article on "Museums" in the last number exhibits a little of the slashing style of the London Saturday Review, or else I am blinded by my prejudices or interests.

I am not thin-skinned, and I know my Museum was not so refined or classic or scientifically arranged as the foreign governmental institutions, for mine had to support my family, while those require annually from the government thousands of pounds. "That class for which it [my Museum] would seem to have been originally intended" would not support a proper museum pecuniarily. More’s the pity–but such is the stern fact. Hence, to make it self-supporting, I was obliged to popularize it, and while I still held on to the "million of curiosities," millions of people were only induced to see them because, at the same time, they could see whales, giants, dwarfs, Albinoes, dog shows, et cetera. But it is a great error to state that I ever permitted "vulgar sensation dramas." No vulgar word or gesture, and not a profane expression, was ever allowed on my stage! Even in Shakespeare’s plays, I unflinchingly and invariably cut out vulgarity and profanity. It is equally incorrect that "respectable citizens did not take their wives daughters" "to see a play on that stage." Your writer doubtless supposed he was stating facts, but let him enquire, and he will find that nothing could be further from the truth. I am sensitive on these points, because I was always extremely squeamish in my determination to allow nothing objectionable on my stage.

       I permitted no intoxicating liquors in the Museum. I would not even allow my visitors to "go out to drink" and return again without paying the second time, and this reconciled them to the "ice-water" which was always profuse and free on each floor of the Museum. I could not personally or by proxy examine into the character of every visitor, but I continually had half a score of detectives dressed in plain clothes, who incontinently turned into the street every person of either sex whose actions indicated loose habits. My interest even depended upon my keeping a good reputation for my Museum, and I did it to a greater degree than one out of ten could attain who had charge of a free museum, or even a free picture gallery. Now, I beg of you to submit the above to the writer of the article in question, and ask him, as an act of justice, to set me right before the public. Humbug with me has had its day, and although I always gave the money’s worth of that which was not demoralizing, I often grieved that the taste of the million was not elevated. But now, having made my "million" nearly twice told, I really aspire to do a good and great thing, and I ask hereby the aid of you and your writer in accomplishing it. Listen:

If I build another museum, It will be fire-proof; 2d, It will be almost infinitely superior in its collections and its classifications and accommodations to the old; 3d, When I build a new American Museum, I shall also erect a large wing, or an additional adjacent building, the contents of which shall form and be a Free National Museum. There I will place classified specimens of natural history, paintings, statuary, armor (especially that worn by historical personages), old weapons of war, musical instruments, costumes and furniture of the middle ages, and a thousand other useful and novel features which will be an honor to our country. Here, too, will be placed all free contributions of novelties from everybody, including missionaries, ship-owners, foreign persons of distinction, and foreign museums. The Smithsonian Institute can loan its duplicates, the Patent Office, War and Navy Departments can lend their trophies, models, etc., gentlemen can loan their statuary and other objects, and myself, my heirs or assigns, shall always exhibit the whole free (I paying expenses by means of rent of stores and out of my own pocket), and whenever we fail to do so, every article not loaned by individuals to the Free Museum is vested in the general Government, and may be removed to a suitable building in Central Park or elsewhere. Indeed, if my paying Museum prospers as I expect, myself or heirs will eventually erect and present to the public the land and a proper building containing these curiosities, which in ten or twenty years will have accumulated to an amazing extent if properly pushed and encouraged. I have tried to hire Bayard Taylor to scour Europe with me to make purchases and obtain contributions of duplicates from institutions abroad. He will go next summer; but this summer I want an educated, intelligent gentleman, like the writer of that article on Museums, and will pay him liberally to aid me, for, after all, his taste, so far as a Free Museum is concerned, exactly coincides with mine. I know Europe pretty well, and for the Free Museum I shall be manfully backed up by the leading officials of our Government at home and abroad, and, with my experience and vim, I can in a single year accomplish more in this line for "The Nation" (I mean the American people) than the sleepy Historical Society could do in half a century. At all events, at the least I can form a magnificent nucleus for a Governmental Free Museum. I owe the youth of this nation a debt of gratitude, and I am anxious to pay it, at least partially. I hope that the fire of the late Museum will have fumigated and burned out the humbug from the public mind to such a degree that it can discover that Barnum has got neither horns nor hoofs, and that he has as much love for refinement and the elevation of the race, especially in this country, as even your excellent writer, "or any other man." I merely hope that this writer will carefully and impartially ponder this hastily written letter, and manfully give me justice. If he will, at the same time, lend me a helping hand in the way of council, he will confer a great favor on myself, which I will endeavor to transfer for the benefit of my countrymen.

In great haste, truly yours,

P.T. Barnum.

See also:

A Word About Museums, The Nation, July 27, 1865 (Complete)

A Word About Museums, The Nation, July 27, 1865 (Abridged)