Yesterday I ventured into the J & R Music and Computer Store at Ann St. and Park Row, the site of Barnum’s Museum a mere 150 years ago. Here’s the view from the entrance of the store, quite a different site from what the 1850 Illustrated Guidebook describes:
“Having paid the admission money, we proceed, and presently find ourselves in a handsome new saloon on the ground floor, with a mellowed and subdued light, well adapted to the exhibition of wax figures, to which this portion of the museum is devoted.”
On either side of the room were the “admirably executed busts” of esteemed individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Cicero. Then, one would turn to what seems to main event of the room, a waxwork tableau of The Drunkard’s Family, which the author compares to George Cruikshank’s Bottle (image below)
(see also here). Much has been writen on Temperance and the famous play The Drunkard that operated as a forum for the social activism associated with temperance, but I think it’s key to think about Barnum’s representation as being framed by the exemplary busts of “fathers” of Western civilization and society. They almost literally act as a normative frame. Images of drunken squalor, like depicted in the saloon of Barnum’s, are sensationalistic enough, but are heightened even more when they are framed by social ideals of creativity, moderation, and intellect. Even the format, busts vs. waxworks, represents a different in respectable restraint versus popular excess. Of course, at Barnum’s, one could be encouraged to look down on things like waxworks, but only if you simultaneously wanted to see more of it!