The Barnum-Trump Connection

barnum trump

P.T.  Barnum – as relevant today as he was over 100 years ago.  As Executive Director of the Barnum Museum and someone who has dedicated many years of my career to the study of P.T. Barnum – I interestingly find I have something in common with Donald  Trump – his admiration of P.T. Barnum and that ‘Yes!’ – we all need a bit more P.T. Barnum in this world.

Please understand that this is by no means an endorsement or criticism of political ideas or philosophies, or politicians for that matter, but I find myself in a unique situation.  During this election year P.T. Barnum is repeatedly being thrown into the political arena.  As steward of P.T. Barnum’s vast and complex legacy and reputation, I am compelled to respond to candidate Trump’s January 12th response to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet The Press:

“Some people are calling you the music man of this race, or Kim Kardashian, Biff from the film “Back to the Future”, George Costanza, . . . or P.T. Barnum. Do you consider any of those [comparisons] a compliment?” Todd asked.

“P.T. Barnum.” was Mr. Trump’s quick response.  “We need a little bit of P.T. Barnum because we have to build up the image of our country,” he said.

P.T. Barnum is remembered for a variety of things today – some fact and a lot of fiction.  However; I believe it is in the context of Barnum’s mastery of promotion where Mr. Trump makes his connection.  Indeed, P.T. Barnum understood the tone, complexion and hopes of 19th century Americans, and he worked tirelessly to celebrate the good in all humanity.  A champion of civil rights, temperance and moral order, Barnum believed it was an obligation to advocate for social justices and be a voice for change.  Serving as a Connecticut legislator (and later Mayor of Bridgeport, CT) Barnum addressed the Connecticut General Assembly “I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask.  All I desire is to do what is right, and prevent what is wrong.” 

Barnum was highly intelligent and organized with indefatigable energy for invention and action.

Although best known for his “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth,” Barnum was actually 61 years old when that endeavor was launched.  Barnum’s notoriety and public acclaim was already embedded in American society based on the remarkable success of his American Museum in New York City (1842-1868) and his long career in politics and show business.

It was in fact the ground-breaking innovations of Barnum’s American Museum that transformed public perception of entertainment, ushering in the age of family entertainment, enlightenment and instructive amusement based on his unprecedented marketing campaigns and promotional genius.

Barnum uncovered a world of the grandiose and the unusual and, in doing so, engaged the curious and invited controversy.  P.T. Barnum was the answer to the democratic impulse to challenge the establishment. His pioneering spirit of promotion and his knack for business transformed popular conceptions of the era, in turn molding and defining so much of the world we live in today.

In Barnum’s own words:
“The one end aimed at was to make men and women think and talk and wonder, and, as a practical result, go to the Museum.  This was my constant study and occupation.” 

These are words we aspire to everyday at the Barnum Museum.

All Things Barnum By Kathy Maher


BRC Hit a Star

I want to welcome you to the first edition of my new blog, “All Things Barnum”.

Thank you for inviting me into your lives. The idea of jumping full force into “All Things Barnum” comes after five years of challenges at the Barnum Museum that include a series of damaging natural disasters from an EF1 tornado, both hurricanes Irene and Sandy as well as consecutive winters of record snow storms.  Hard to believe, but true.

In the wake of all this there were only two paths to consider:  1) –  succumb to seemingly insurmountable challenges, or 2) – rise above the situation and spearhead the crusade to restore, revitalize and re-envision our Museum.  Collectively, we believe that this Museum matters in our shared human journey, and whatever it takes, it’s our obligation to this important piece of history to persevere, figure it out — fix it — and do it all in the spirit of its creator…P.T. Barnum

We have come to realize these enormous challenges were in fact, an opportunity to explore the boundaries of creativity and innovation, a chance to become something bigger and better than we were before.

What would Barnum do today?… so many people have asked.  That is the question that is driving our vision plans.  What we know for sure is that we need to live up to the extraordinary benchmarks that Barnum himself set; everything we do must look to Barnum’s fearlessness in embracing new technology, exploring innovation, celebrating the past while designing the future. All we do today will be measured by the on-going legacy of one of America’s pantheon of entertainment immortals.  A tall order indeed!

So how will we bring Barnum back to life?  I personally invite you on this amazing journey with us!  We’ll tell Barnum’s stories – the stories that defined him and that connect and resonate with us today, from the acclaimed Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, to the lesser known stories of his politics and personal beliefs.  I can promise enlightening and inspiring conversation.

Barnum’s most inspiring words to me?  The noblest art is that of making others happy.  I think that is a perfect way to start.

Kathy Maher

Executive Director of the Barnum Museum, Bridgeport, CT