The What Is It? Archive

What Is It?...or Man Monkey- on exhibition at Barnum's Museum, New YorkIn February 1860, just three months after Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, Barnum premiered one of his most famous exhibits, "What Is It?" Claiming that the African American performer playing What Is It? was a possible missing link between man and beast, Barnum merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with ongoing antebellum debates over racial definition, the morality of slavery, and sectional politics. The exhibit opened during the 1860 Presidential campaign, which revolved around issues of slavery and the rights and definition of African Americans as citizens. Advertisements and promotional material for What Is It? labeled the exhibit a "nondescript" and invited the public to answer the question for themselves. While What Is It? was defined as racially, socially and biologically lower than its viewers, Barnum and newspaper reviewers emphasized the "pleasing" and "playful" nature of the exhibit. As James Cook argues in The Arts of Deception, the ambiguity of the exhibit— was it a beast or a playful child — reflected the tentativeness of middle-class formation and social order in antebellum America.

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"An Heir to the Throne or the Next Republican Candidate," 1860
Barnum's What Is It? drew broad publicity and large crowds during the months leading up to the 1860 Presidential election, which revolved around issues of slavery and the rights and definition of African Americans as citizens. The portrayal of an African man as the link between man and monkey became fodder for anti-Lincoln cartoons. This anti-Lincoln Currier and Ives print used Barnum's racial construct to denounce the Republican candidate and argue that slaves were not fit for citizenship. The image of the What Is It was taken from an American Museum advertisement that appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on December 15, 1860.
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


WHAT IS IT? Advertisement, New York Tribune, March 1, 1860
In 1860 Barnum promoted his new "What Is It?" exhibition with a series of ads, including this one from the New York Tribune. Barnum avoided defining the exhibit, and used provocative language and images to draw visitors to answer the question for themselves. Claiming that What Is It? was captured in Africa and illustrated the link between man and monkey, Barnum opened the exhibit shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and at the height of political tensions over slavery in the U.S. Although the exhibit was politically controversial, the ad tried to reassured New York's middle-class public that What Is It? was playful, amusing, and not repulsive.
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


WHAT IS IT? Advertisement, New York Herald, March 19, 1860
This New York Herald ad tells the reputed story of the capture and process of civilizing what Barnum called the "nondescript." The What Is It? exhibit presented an African-American man as the link between man and monkey. What Is It? opened at the American Museum shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and at the height of political tensions over slavery in the U.S. The exhibit claimed to prove that Africans descended from monkeys and thus merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with ongoing antebellum debates over racial definition, the morality of slavery, and sectional politics.
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


WHAT IS IT? As Middle-class Entertainment
Barnum's promotional material for What Is It? claimed that "it is the opinion of most scientific men that he is the connecting link between the wild native African, and the orang outang." By highlighting the "scientific" as well as the "pleasing, interesting and amusing" nature of the human exhibit, Barnum sought to attract middle-class families looking for education and entertainment to the American Museum. This print by the lithography firm of Currier and Ives stresses the respectability of the exhibit even as it highlights the "otherness" of the "man monkey."
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


WHAT IS IT? -- Gallery of Wonders No. 12
This Currier and Ives print of Barnum's What Is It? depicted him in the wild, dressed in fur and leaning on a pole to stand upright. Despite the bared teeth, Barnum described him as being "playful as a kitten." The exhibit claimed to prove that Africans descended from monkeys and thus merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with ongoing antebellum debates over racial definition, the morality of slavery, and sectional politics.
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


WHAT IS IT? Portraits by Mathew Brady
The African American actor who played What Is It? was photographed in his costume by Mathew Brady in the early 1860s. Although he played the part for years, his identity is not known. Most newspaper accounts accepted the authenticity of Barnum's claims for his "monkey man" despite the obviously human image in these photographs. In 1877 William Henry Johnson, a mentally disabled African American, took over the part and performed as Barnum 's What Is It? for more than 50 years.
Exhibit: What Is It?.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.