P.T. Barnum presents : the greatest classroom on earth! : historical inquiry into the role of education in Barnum's American Museum

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Murray, Lisa Rochelle

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This study of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum challenges readers to examine Barnum in a new light. An argument is made that P.T. Barnum was a successful museum educator whose philosophies and actions align with three modern museum education discourses: free-choice learning, constructivism, and edutainment. These findings challenge the commonly-held belief that Barnum was simply a showman, best known for his work in the circus and for a quote that has been mis-attributed to him that, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

The research undertaken for this investigation focuses on museums and education in the nineteenth century. This study presents a brief history of the emergence of museums in America, spanning the years 1782–1841. Six museum proprietors are discussed in accordance with their beliefs in three educational philosophies: popular education, useful education and didactic education. A focus is then made towards P.T. Barnum and his American Museum. A brief biography of Barnum prior to his career as a museum proprietor is included. The holdings and organization of the American Museum is described, revealing some of the influence it had on nineteenth-century culture.

The thesis concludes by illustrating how Barnum’s American Museum exemplified three forms of education: free-choice learning, constructivism, and edutainment. In it I argue that Barnum was an effective museum educator and his legacy should reflect this important feature of his character.



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