Teaching The Lost Museum

This overview essay enumerates the specific exhibits, documents, and lessons that pertain to topics commonly taught in U.S. history courses. This essay can help instructors familiarize themselves with the site and create student assignments related to their teaching needs.


There are several ways that the resources on The Lost Museum can be used to teach about antebellum and Civil War era United States history and culture. The Archive and the 3-D Exploration are designed to be used in tandem to help students to undertake a multi-stage process of intellectual inquiry, using the Archive to acquire historical context for the strange objects they encounter in the Museum. The Mystery and its search for clues provides one way to do this; we hope that instructors will also design activities and assignments that accomplish this on a smaller scale.

Instructors can also use the hundreds of primary text and image sources in the searchable Archive as individual readings, as the fodder for independent research projects, and in lessons of their own design. We have provided a number of structured lessons, and we encourage teachers to adapt them to meet the needs of their students. In addition, several background essays are accompanied by a set of related primary documents, offering a source for readings and a springboard for class discussions and/or research projects.

Please contact us to let us know how you have used the site, and any suggestions about how we can make it more educationally useful.

While the Archive is fully searchable by topics, keywords, sources, and dates, we have also provided a brief overview of the site's contents that relate to the following historical topics and themes:

Abolition
P. T. Barnum/The American Museum
Civil War
Gender Roles
Labor
Natural Science/Animals
Racial Identities
Sectional Conflict
Temperance
Urban Popular Amusements

Abolition
The movement to abolish slavery (known as abolition) grew steadily in the U.S. from the 1830s to 1860, when the issue of slavery finally drove the country into Civil War. The Lost Museum contains a variety of resources for teaching about the political, social, and cultural manifestations of abolitionism in the antebellum decades. In the Archive, an 1849 newspaper advertisement announcing that “respectable colored persons” could visit the American Museum for four hours on one day powerfully conveys the level of discrimination faced by African Americans in antebellum New York City. Also in the Archive, an essay on Race and Race Relations in P.T. Barnum's New York provides historical context and a set of primary documents relating to African-American efforts to end slavery and ameliorate the severe discrimination that even free African Americans faced. In the Picture Gallery, a poster for Joice Heth is mysteriously hidden in a drawer. Archive documents reveal that in 1837, Barnum exhibited Heth (an elderly African-American woman whom he claimed was the 120 year old former nursemaid of George Washington) in several cities. Controversy erupted in Providence when abolitionist ministers discouraged their congregations from attending the exhibit because Heth was a slave. Barnum, no abolitionist, concocted a story about the profits from the exhibition being used to free Heth's family, still enslaved in the South, then gloated about it a few years later in print.

In the Waxworks Room, exhibits on abolitionist John Brown (a pike used in his raid on Harpers Ferry and a famous lithograph of him going to his execution) are accompanied by numerous Archive documents that demonstrate the passionate and diverse reactions that Brown's fervent abolitionism and 1859 raid inspired. An essay-writing activity prompts students to examine some of those responses and consider the links between violence and social change. Also in the Waxworks Room, portraits of Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls, a Civil War naval hero, link to Archive documents that illuminate the ways that African Americans took emancipation into their own hands. A more troubling exhibit in the Waxworks Room is the What Is It?, a human curiosity or “nondescript” that Barnum exhibited as “the connecting link between the wild native African, and the orang outang.” Archive documents include advertisements for and images of the patently racist exhibit, one which, arriving on the eve of war in 1860, reveals a great deal about white anxiety over the end of slavery. Abolition made frequent appearances on the Lecture Room's stage, in controversial productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dred, and The Octoroon; reviews and other documents relating to all of these plays appear in the Archive.

P. T. Barnum/The American Museum
The Lost Museum is rich with material on the career of the American Museum's celebrated owner P. T. Barnum. Amusing cartoons and anecdotes about Barnum abound, including more than one account of the “King of Humbugs” being hoodwinked himself (“How Barnum Was Out-Barnumed” and “P. T. Barnum Sold At Last”). Barnum published two autobiographies, in 1855 and 1869; the second was subsequently republished in numerous editions. Excerpts from these texts in the Archive reveal his evolving political viewpoints (on temperance, the Republican party, and suffrage for African Americans), his beliefs about the entertainment industry (on showmanship and promotion), and his descriptions of how he acquired and promoted some of his infamous exhibits (including Joice Heth, the Wooly Horse, and the FeJee Mermaid). A letter from Barnum to his employee John Greenwood, located in the Circassian Beauty archive, also sheds light on Barnum's methods as a showman. The Imagine Yourself as P. T. Barnum activity asks students to investigate the site for information about Barnum and write a first person monologue.

Barnum's use of spectacle and media-driven narratives to attract audiences also drew the criticism of elites who had a very different vision of what museums should be. The background essay on Barnum's American Museum provides a good overview of the Museum's distinctive place in the history of museums in the U.S. The Museum rooms themselves, particularly if considered in light of The Nation's scathing 1865 criticism, “A Word About Museums,” are suggestive of Barnum's one-of-a-kind collection of objects, art, and people. (Barnum's spirited response to The Nation is also included in the Archive.) The 1850 Illustrated Guidebook and sample advertisements, located in the Archive, also reveal the breadth and eclecticism of the American Museum's holdings, a diversity that infuriated elite critics, such as those at The Nation. A handful of documentary images of the Museum's interior and exterior, available in the Archive as well, will also help students to visualize this lost cultural space, as will firsthand accounts by visitors to the Museum such as William James and William Makepeace Thackeray (Eyre Crow's “With Thackeray in America: A Visit to Barnum's”). Teaching activities on “Behaving in Public” and “Investigating an Institution” will prompt students to think and write critically about the American Museum's unique role in antebellum culture.

Civil War
The Lost Museum contains a wealth of resources for teaching about the Civil War. An essay about “The Civil War in New York City” provides an overview of the war years in the American Museum's divided city, but many of the site's materials tell a more national story. Barnum exhibited a wax figure known as the Belle of Richmond, located in the Picture Gallery, that purported to present Jefferson Davis in the condition in which he was captured by Union forces in May, 1865. Its accompanying archive includes numerous political cartoons lampooning the defeated Confederate President. (The New York Times' account of the fire that destroyed the American Museum details the Belle of Richmond's fate.) In the Waxworks Room, Barnum displayed a small cannon and a draft wheel, of the type used to select Union Army conscripts; related archive materials cover the New York City draft riots of July, 1863. A wax figure of Robert Cobb Kennedy, also located in the Waxworks Room, leads to newspaper accounts of the foiled 1864 plot by Confederate sympathizers to burn down major public buildings in New York, including the American Museum. A number of items relating to the Civil War (many with related Archive documents) hang on one wall in the Waxworks Room, including: a memorial version of the program from Ford's Theatre that commemorates the April, 1865 death of President Lincoln; a “Wanted” poster from the days following Lincoln's death; a photograph of Lincoln assassination accomplice Lewis Payne; a portrait of African-American war hero Robert Smalls; a Union Army recruiting poster; a poster advertising Pauline Cashman's lectures on her experiences behind Confederate lines as a military spy; portraits of Union military commanders; lithographs from the U.S. Sanitary Commission; a portrait of Frederick Douglass; and a lithograph of an infamous painting of John Brown going to his execution. An adjoining wall, between the windows, holds photographs of battlefield dead from the Alexander Gardner studio. Finally, the podium in the Lecture Room holds a page from a speech on Reconstruction (the entire address can be found in the Archive), that introduces the questions of suffrage and the terms of political reunification that that the nation faced as soon as the guns fell silent. Barnum's own speech on the subject of “negro suffrage,” delivered to the Connecticut state legislature, also introduces some of the key issues of the Reconstruction period.

Gender Roles
In response to changes in the antebellum economy, an emerging northern middle class developed a division of labor--and an ideology undergirding it--of separate public and private domains for men and women. The American Museum reflected and at times disrupted this ideology. In an era when middle-class women were rarely seen in theatres and other public spaces, Barnum sought to enlarge the audience for the museum by convincing middle-class women that it was a safe and respectable place of public amusement.

Some of Barnum's most famous attractions were women, or involved them heavily. A poster in the Picture Gallery for Barnum's infamous and phenomenally popular baby show (which first appeared at the American Museum in 1855) is accompanied by an Archive with images and commentary, some of it highly critical, of this public display of motherhood. A carte de visite for Zalumma Agra, the Circassian Girl, sits on the table near the Picture Gallery windows; Barnum portrayed her as both exotic and a representative of the purest white race in the world.

The daguerreotype portrait of Jenny Lind, also in the Picture Gallery, leads to an archive of material relating to the soprano's celebrated 1850-51 tour of the U.S. Barnum presented Lind as the embodiment of virtuous womanhood, and she became, thanks to Barnum's unprecedented promotional campaign, the most famous woman in America. The activity on Fame and Fortune: The Marketing of Celebrity compares the careers of Lind and African-American soprano Elizabeth Greenfield in order to probe ideas about gender, race, and celebrity. During the Civil War, the Lecture Room featured Pauline Cushman, briefly a spy behind Confederate lines; her portrait and a poster for her lecture appear in the Waxworks Room, connected to newspaper accounts of her exploits.

Women played important roles in voluntary and reform efforts during the antebellum and Civil War eras. Nancy Hewitt's essay on Reform and Reformers in the Antebellum Era, with its accompanying documents, and the activity on Women's Roles in Public, outline the participation of women in antislavery, temperance, and suffrage causes. On a Waxworks Room wall, a Thomas Nast engraving commemorates women's Civil War work through the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

In the Lecture Room, the lantern slide show on Etiquette and its associated archive suggest the ways that an emerging urban middle class developed elaborate rules of dress and conduct to strengthen a shared class identity in the city's often chaotic social spaces. These rules of etiquette both defined and policed gender roles through highly specific forms of behavior. Two of these archive documents in particular, on the experience of an unaccompanied young woman visiting the museum in 1843, imply the peril women might face in urban public spaces. The essay on Women in P. T. Barnum's New York City, written by Ann Fabian, provides context for this incident by relating the place of female customers at the American Museum to the evolving public and private roles of working-class and middle-class women in mid-nineteenth century New York City.

Labor
While the American Museum was a place where people went during their hours of leisure, it was also a place where people worked. In addition to the many famous “human curiosities” who performed there, the Museum employed (and in some cases, housed) actors, stagehands, glassblowers, a fortune teller, and a taxidermist. A few documents will help students to enter into the antebellum world of work at the American Museum. Brief text excerpts from contemporary sources describe how industrialization transformed the craft of glassmaking between the 1840s and the 1860s. Newspaper coverage of the fire that destroyed the Museum includes an article on the various relief efforts being raised to assist the now unemployed workers, while a cartoon provides a more humorous interpretation of the workers' post-fire employment options. An earlier newspaper article, from the Brooklyn Eagle, hints at discord between Barnum and at least one of his employees. For the workers who arrived at the Museum on the morning of July 13, 1865, there is a Lecture Room lantern slide show with an archive on Firefighters that covers the transformation of firefighting in New York City from working-class amateur fire companies to the urban reform efforts that led to the professionalization of police and firefighting in the city in the spring of 1865. Two additional text documents attached to the Race and Race Relations in New York City essay (from the Anti-Slavery Examiner and the New York Herald) provide insight into employment discrimination faced by African Americans.

Natural Science/Animals
With its many natural history exhibits (both real and humbug), Barnum's American Museum marked an important intersection between science and popular culture. Paul Semonin's essay on Barnum and Science in the Antebellum Era traces the history of scientific thought in the nineteenth century and provides an overview of the Museum's natural history collections. In the Picture Gallery, a phrenologist's chart (with accompanying archive) offers a window into the popular nineteenth-century science of determining a person's mental strengths, abilities, and personality traits from the shape of the skull. Barnum relied heavily on the sanction-either real or fabricated-of scientific experts in his promotion of the FeJee Mermaid an What Is It? exhibits. The FeJee Mermaid archive contains evidence of public responses to the mermaid, as well as Barnum's account of his own scientific fakery in its presentation. The What Is It?, represented by an empty exhibit stand and label in the Waxworks Room and an accompanying archive, is a troubling artifact of antebellum ideas about race. Barnum claimed that this “nondescript” was “the connecting link between the wild native African, and the orang outang,” and the archive contains numerous text and visual documents that demonstrate how Barnum and others used science to justify racism.

In an age before zoos, the American Museum's live animal displays were particularly popular. In the Picture Gallery, Barnum presented a cage containing the “Happy Family,” predator animals and their prey (allegedly) coexisting in a living biblical allegory. Also in the Picture Gallery, a sign and intriguing sound effects alert students to the presence of the Grand Aquaria, which at various times housed angel fish, seals, sharks, and a hippopotamus, as noted in a newspaper advertisement for the Museum located in the Animals on Display archive. This archive also contains an advertisement and newspaper article chronicling the arrival of two of the aquarium's most famous occupants, a pair of whales. As with many of his attractions, Barnum's promotional efforts relied heavily on the tales of how the animals were captured in far off and dangerous lands; an illustrated account, about the capture of elephants, appears in the Animals on Display archive. Some animal displays were more quirky than exotic, as evidenced by the archive's sheet music cover and newspaper coverage of the Museum's 1854 Poultry Show.

Barnum's animal displays also had serious implications. Correspondence between Henry Bergh and Barnum located in the archive, along with a letter on Barnum's desk, reveal Bergh's pointed questions about the treatment of animals at the Museum. Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866.

Racial Identities
Recent scholarship has demonstrated the ways that white, male, immigrant racial identities were constructed and reinforced through antebellum popular cultural forms, particularly blackface minstrel shows. As a site of such minstrel shows as well as attractions that explicitly promoted white racialized identities (such as the Circassian Beauty, the What Is It?, and a phrenologist), the American Museum was a key site for the antebellum articulation of whiteness. Given the fact that African Americans were only allowed in the American Museum on a limited basis (see essay on Race and Race Relations and “Notice to Persons of Color,” New York Tribune, February 27, 1849), the very presence of human attractions such as the elderly slave Joice Heth, the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and the What Is It? reinforced the white identities of American Museum patrons. The What Is It?, which debuted during the charged presidential election of 1860, merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with ongoing antebellum debates over racial definition, the morality of slavery, and sectional politics. The What Is It? archive contains advertisements and images that reveal important intellectual and popular contexts for understanding racial identities on the eve of the Civil War.

Zalumma Agra, the “Circassian Beauty” whose carte de visite appears in the Picture Gallery, was a human attraction whose appeal lay entirely in her white identity. Barnum's promotion of Jenny Lind as an exemplar of white womanhood, prompted one journalist to write “Jenny Lind, the Northern Light,” which used the Swedish soprano as proof of European racial hierarchies. The classroom activity on Fame and Fortune draws explicit comparisons in the racialized ways that antebellum audiences perceived Lind and African-American singer Elizabeth Greenfield. The phrenologist's map in the Picture Gallery, along with the Phrenology archive, provides evidence of a racially-based science of determining intelligence and character through the physical contours of the head.

Sectional Conflict
Many of the American Museum's exhibits during the 1850s reflected the escalating political and social crises that led the nation toward secession and Civil War. In the Waxworks Room, two artifacts introduce viewers to abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia: a pike purportedly used by Brown's group, and a painting of Brown en route to his execution. A series of press accounts and letters reveal the fascinating story behind both the painting itself and its subject, along with other Archive materials that convey the range of deeply polarized contemporary reactions to Brown. An activity asks students to examine some of those reactions and write an essay that considers the relationship between violence and social change.

Also in the Waxworks Room, a pair of wax figures depict Representative Preston Brooks caning Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, one of the decade's most shocking and notorious incidents. The seriate slide cabinet offers a frame-by-frame presentation of the major events leading toward disunion and war; each slide appears in the Archive with a contextualizing headnote, and several other Archive documents and images fill out the story of sectional strife. An activity on The Path to War? asks students to use these resources to assemble images and text for their own slide show on the U.S. during the 1850s.

Temperance
During the four decades prior to the Civil War, industrialization began to transform American society, as more people began to live in cities, immigrants from Ireland and Germany poured into the country, and mechanization changed the nature and structure of work. Many men and women, inspired in part by evangelical Christianity, undertook a host of “moral reform” movements intended to encourage self-control and cure such social ills as poverty, crime, and insanity. Temperance was one such reform movement, and its cultural and political influence extended throughout American society. At the American Museum, temperance was most in evidence on the Lecture Room stage, where a long-running production of the “moral drama” The Drunkard entertained audiences throughout the 1850s.

Barnum was himself a temperance advocate and speaker, and he permitted only ice water to be served within the American Museum; the Archive contains an excerpt from his autobiography describing his conversion to the temperance cause and an 1852 speech on the subject. The Archive also contains an example of a “teetotal pledge” and evidence of the temperance movement's influence on electoral politics during the 1850s.

In the Waxworks Room, students can peer into a “cosmorama” of scenes from British illustrator George Cruikshank's illustrated series The Bottle. In the Lecture Room, a lantern slide show on etiquette, and accompanying Archive excerpts from mid-nineteenth-century etiquette handbooks, can help students to grasp the social and cultural transformations of antebellum cities, where new ways of living among crowds of strangers called for new modes of behavior.

Urban Popular Amusements
Barnum and his American Museum represented a critical development in the history of U.S. popular entertainment, as he deliberately wooed and won an emerging middle-class family audience to what had been previously a male, working-class domain. While the entire Lost Museum site is evidence of P. T. Barnum's vital influence on the development of mid-nineteenth century urban public culture, there are several specific resources within the site that help to illuminate this topic. Peter Buckley's essay on Urban Public Culture in the Age of Barnum provides an overview of the growth and international dimensions of American popular culture in the antebellum era. The American Museum was popular (as well as criticized by New York's elite) for its side-by-side mixture of people, objects, and performances that both entertained and edified. On tables in the Picture Gallery and Waxworks Room, cartes de visite represent the “human curiosities” that Barnum was famous for presenting, and archives on the Circassian Beauty, Tom Thumb, What Is It, and Nova Scotia Giantess provide additional materials on how these human attractions were presented and understood. The Amusement Devices archive highlights some of the technologies of spectacle that Barnum and other showmen of his day employed. The Bowery Culture archive offers examples of the working-class culture that was an important element of the museum's early years. The Doesticks Visits the Museum excerpt satirizes the Museum's eclectic contents and concludes with a pithy description of a Lecture Room production featuring the Bowery characters Mose and Lize (also present in an archive image of Mose and Lize on Third Avenue).

Theatrical presentations were a key element of antebellum urban popular culture. On the wall near the Waxworks Room windows, a photograph of Frank Chanfrau as Mose (along with photographs of the actors Charlotte Saunders Cushman and Edwin Forrest in their famous roles) provide visual evidence of the era's theatrical customs. When Barnum re-opened the American Museum's enlarged Lecture Room in 1850, he proclaimed it a place for “rational amusement with a proper sense of virtue and morality.” The New York Tribune of June 19th reprinted Barnum's remarks about the importance of respectable “moral drama,” although a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from September suggests that the old Bowery amusements were still appearing on the Lecture Room stage.