Show Stopper

 

Courtesy of The Barnum Museum

Two years ago, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 24, 2010, at about 2:20 p.m., an EF-1 tornado touched down on East Main Street in Bridgeport. With winds in excess of 100 miles per hour, it was one of the most powerful if short-lived storms to strike the Park City in decades, blowing out windows, toppling trees and power lines, collapsing buildings, injuring dozens and cutting a quarter-mile swath of destruction.

Squarely in the tornado’s path was the 119-year-old Barnum Museum building, which since 1968 has showcased the life of iconic showman Phineas T. Barnum and his “Greatest Show on Earth.” The museum incurred significant damage: Windows were smashed, allowing water and wind to wreak havoc on the permanent collection and ruin the HVAC system, the historic edifice suffered structural harm to its east wall and the roof dome shifted on its supports. All told, full restoration will cost between $15 million and $17 million, which will be covered by insurance, state and federal grants and the museum’s fund-raising efforts.

Yet, even as other local businesses affected by the storm made repairs and returned to normal operations long ago, the museum building continues to be closed to the public, and although repairs have begun, it will be at least another two-and-a-half years before visitors will be fully allowed back in to enjoy such attractions as Tom Thumb’s carriage, the mummy Pa-Ib and the Feejee Mermaid.

“People always ask, ‘Why is it taking so long?’” says Kathy Maher, the Barnum Museum’s executive director and curator. “The main reason is because it’s a National Historic Landmark. We’re governed by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, so we have to comply with their restoration guidelines. It’s a whole other level of issues of which we have to be completely cognizant, and because it’s a museum collection, you can’t just pack up everything quick and get out.”

Indeed, the removal of the museum’s 25,000 objects alone took over a year, according to Maher, who, along with her remaining staff of four and the aid of “an army of conservators,” had to clean, assess, catalog and pack items, often in custom-made containers. It took time to find and prepare adequate storage space as well as to deal with engineers, architects and insurance companies, while also maintaining some of the museum’s regular activities including raising funds, organizing special events and providing community outreach.

The community has reached back to help support the museum in its time of need. People’s United Bank—whose headquarters next door sustained only minor damage from the tornado—has provided free storage space for many of the museum’s artifacts and is currently hosting an exhibit in its gallery that details the restoration effort. “Since 1987 when our building was constructed, we’ve been a part of this community and neighbors to the Barnum Museum, and we were saddened to see the damage they sustained,” says Vincent Santilli, People’s United’s first vice president, retail and business banking and community relations. “We’re happy to be able to help them preserve their artifacts. We’re rooting for them, and have great faith that they will get back on their feet.”

In the meantime, the show must go on, as Barnum might say. The museum is loaning the Bard College Graduate Center a number of Tom Thumb pieces for an upcoming exhibition dedicated to the circus in New York, and other items have been loaned to The Berkshires Museum in Massachusetts and the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. The mummy Pa-Ib is currently being stored at Yale University in New Haven, with plans for exhibition. “We’ve never really started behaving like a closed museum,” says Maher, who jokes she hasn’t slept since the tornado. “But this has not been fun. Dealing with two insurance companies—the city owns the building, the foundation runs the operations—it’s staggering the amount of work we’ve had to do since it’s happened, and nothing that’s fast.

“I think we have one of the most fascinating stories in American history,” she enthuses nonetheless, noting that Barnum himself suffered multiple catastrophes [see below] but always managed to find a way to bounce back. “And come hell or high water—literally, in our case—we’re also going to get this museum back on its feet, and it’ll be bigger and better than ever.”      
                     

Show Stopper

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