The Lost Museum Archive

Who Burned Down Barnum's Museum?
An Inquiry into 19th Century Social Conflict

This activity guides students through the game-like mystery of who may have burned down the American Museum. Students work in teams, read background esays on social, political, and cultural conflicts in nineteenth century America, then search for clues specific to one suspect. Students use the online notebook to assign clues to suspects and determine if they would accuse their suspect. Designed to work in a 90 minute class period, this lesson can be modified to fit shorter class periods by assigning steps 1 and 2 as homework.

Historians have long recognized P. T. Barnum's American Museum as a pivotal institution in the development of nineteenth-century urban culture. Barnum purchased the museum in 1841 and soon it became the first institution to combine the sensational entertainment and gaudy display popular among working class audiences with the instruction and moral uplift favored by the middle class. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of human “attractions,” as well as animals (stuffed and live), paintings, wax figures, and artifacts. The Lecture Room (or theater) presented Shakespearean plays along side moral melodramas, lectures, and novelty acts. The Museum successfully gathered exhibitions and amusements that previously had been offered in separate milieus. It also drew a new audience that reflected the increasingly heterogeneous population of the American city-immigrants and native-born, working-class and middle-class, men and women, city residents and rural visitors. However, until the Civil War African Americans were barred from the Museum, as they were from most antebellum New York commercial amusements. The Lost Museum website offers a 3-D recreation of Barnum's American Museum as an entry point for understanding a range of social and cultural conflicts that defined nineteenth century New York City.

Civil War in New York City, abolitionism and race relations, nineteenth century popular culture

Computer lab
Internet connection with: Flash 7 and Audio capability (headphones or speakers)

This activity combines individual work with discussion in pairs and full class to assess and interpret materials. Sit next to a selected partner.

Step 1. Introduction to a 3-D re-creation of Barnum's American Museum [15 mintes]
Go to the Lost Museum website:
Individually watch the opening movie then select "Explore the Museum."

Spend 10 minutes looking around the museum viewing as many objects and reading placard descriptions of exhibits. If you have questions about any object you see make a note of it. If there are Archive links for objects that interest you review the primary documents related to the object.

Discuss the objects and any questions you have with your partner.

Step 2. Background to Nineteenth Century Social and Cultural Issues [15 minutes]
From the Classroom page:
Assign each team one of the following Background Essays to read:
1. Race and Race Relations in P.T. Barnum's New York City
2. Reform and Reformers in the Antebellum Era
3. Barnum and Science in the Antebellum Era
4. A City Divided: New York and the Civil War
5. Urban Popular Culture in the Age of Barnum
Take note of any points in the essay that are of particular interest to you or that you would like more information on and discuss it with your partner.

Step 3. Who Burned Down the Museum? [30 minutes]
From The Lost Museum home page, select "Who Burned Down the Museum?" Individually watch the movie of P.T. Barnum instructing you to help find out who would want to destroy The American Museum.

In the pop-up Notebook window, register by selecting a user name and password (remember these so you can return later). Read the notebook instructions - you can refer to these later.

Search the museum rooms to find clues for suspects related to the essay you read in Step 2:
1. Race and Race Relations - Abolitionist Suspect
2. Reform and Reformers - Animal Advocate Suspect
3. Barnum and Science - Man of Science Suspect
4. A City Divided - Copperhead Suspect
5. Urban Popular Culture - Bowery B'hoy Suspect

Whenever an object is a clue, a "Clue" link will appear in the lower right corner - click on it. The clues will be stored in your notebook where you can assign each to a suspect. You can also learn more about the suspects, verify clues (once you have two or more clues per suspect) and accuse a suspect (once you have three correct clues for a suspect).

Share your progress with your partner, explaining what clues you found and who you think they should be assigned to - you may want to each search different rooms to cover more territory.

Many of the Clues also have links to the Archive and related primary documents that will help explain the clue or clarify nineteenth century social conflicts - you should read as many of these as you can and you may want to make note of these archival sources in your notebook under "Your Notes." Once you and your partner have collected and verified three clues for your suspect, discuss the reasons you believe this type of person would or would not have burned down the museum. Make notes of your case against the suspect. Decide as a team if you would accuse him or her.

Step 4. Class Discussion [20 minutes]
Each team should present their case to the full class and discuss the evidence they found against the suspect. Once all the suspects have been presented the class should discuss who they would accuse and if they can come to a consensus about the guilty party. Each team should then accuse their suspect (an option that appears after you have assigned three correct clues), view the final movie and discuss its implications.