Instructive, Astonishing, and Laughable: P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, 1841-1865

deadline for submissions: 
January 22, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
American Studies Association
contact email: 

Blurring distinctions between the morally edifying, instructive, and perverse, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York was central to the emerging culture of popular entertainment in the 1840s-1860s. Les Harrison estimates that by 1865, forty-one million visitors attended P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York: nearly six million more than the total population of the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War.


An institution unlike any before it, the museum merged vulgar showmanship with an endless array of curiosities and wonders designed to amuse, educate, and delight. This panel will explore the space’s exhibits, lectures, performances, celebrities, novelties, or reception as an interface for larger social, political, and cultural concerns of the 1840s through 60s while grappling with the troubling representations that comprised the museum. 


We seek papers that examine how the American Museum enabled audiences to contemplate their relationship to a tumultuous political climate and a growing urban population. We are especially interested in papers that engage with the materiality of an exhibit to interrogate the significance of the American Museum, national or collective identity, the nature of spectatorship, or the role of museums in nineteenth-century America. Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Waxworks

  • Automatons

  • National Baby Shows

  • FeeJee Mermaid

  • Chang and Eng

  • Joice Heth

  • Jenny Lind

  • Tom Thumb

  • Commodore Nutt

  • The Enchanted Forest

  • Tattooed Ladies

  • Living Wonders / Animal Exhibits / Menageries

  • The Western Frontier

  • What Is It?

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • Phrenology

  • Temperance Plays

  • John Brown

  • Jefferson Davis


This is a proposed panel for the American Studies Association Annual Conference in Baltimore, Maryland from November 12-15, 2020. Please send a CV and 300-500-word abstract to Ryan Charlton ( and Ashley Rattner ( by January 22, 2020.