The Lost Museum

The Story of the Lost Museum

What you'll find in the Lost Museum

We present this re-creation of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as a lens into mid-19th century New York City and antebellum America. The Lost Museum website offers visitors a visualization and spatial interpretation of this extraordinary institution as well as an innovative way to learn and teach about the many issues and events of the period. The heart of the website is the 3-D re-creation of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, the pre-eminent cultural institution of 19th century America that was mysteriously destroyed by fire on July 13, 1865. It takes you, the visitor, into the virtual museum where you can roam freely among the four rooms that we have digitally re-created. There are some links between rooms, but you can also use the floor maps that are always available on screen. By moving your mouse or finger left and right, up and down when arrows indicate, you will move around the room. Selecting “hot spots” allows you to look more closely at some of the vast number of items and exhibits Barnum displayed in his museum.

If you choose to solve the mystery of who burned down the museum, characters and clues will guide you back in time and place. P.T. Barnum himself sends you off on the search for a credible culprit. As you explore the museum, some of the items you investigate will be identified as clues. It's up to you to determine to whom each clue points by analyzing the clue and reading and viewing the suggested Archive material. To assist you, we provide a notebook where, after registering, you can collect the fifteen clues, assign them to any of five suspects and, finally, accuse one of destroying the American Museum. [The notebook contains its own instructions.] The notebook also assists in solving the mystery by providing a movie for each suspect that sheds light on both the suspects and some of the key issues and events of the era. All of your clues, along with any notes you take, will be saved in the notebook for retrieval upon return visits.

The 3-D re-creation of the physical museum is accompanied by an Archive of primary documents related to items in the museum. While exploring the 3-D space, an Archive link appears beneath the museum window for items that have related documents in the Archive. The entire Archive is searchable by keyword, document type, and theme. You can also “Browse by Exhibit” to view archive material related to 23 of the exhibits seen in the museum rooms; exhibit archives include a brief introduction for each exhibit. The Classroom contains background essays on the museum and topics related to the historical period along with teaching activities, a guide for teachers, interactive map of New York City, timeline, and bibliography. Classroom items will appear in Archive searches.

Historical Context

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. Foreshadowing trends in American commercial amusement, the Museum was the first institution to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions," from the patchwork Fejee Mermaid to the diminutive and articulate Tom Thumb. But the Museum also proclaimed educational ends, including natural history in its menageries, aquaria, and taxidermy exhibits; history in its paintings, wax figures, and memorabilia; and temperance reform and Shakespearean dramas in its Lecture Room or theater. In one site, the Museum gathered exhibitions and amusements that previously had been offered in separate milieus; equally important, it also drew a new audience that reflected the increasingly heterogeneous population of the American city. In an urban culture characterized by increasing difference—in taste, in subject matter, and in audiences—Barnum's American Museum was a singular institution where, in one place, immigrants and native-born, working-class and middle-class, men and women, city residents and rural visitors could gather. Until the Civil War African Americans were barred from most antebellum New York commercial amusements, although there is evidence that they had access to the American Museum on limited days and hours. On the morning of July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground as a large crowd of New Yorkers gathered to watch the spectacular fire and the frantic attempts to save the people, animals, and objects inside the museum.

How the site was created: A Story in two parts

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Old York Foundation, and The Graduate Center, CUNY, The Lost Museum was created between 1996 and 2002 by the American Social History Project in collaboration with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and produced at the New Media Lab at the City University of New York Graduate Center (see “About Us”).

We began by considering the long-gone physical space. Accurately ascertaining the appearance of Barnum's American Museum represented a research as well as imaginative challenge. Barnum frequently rearranged his museum’s exhibits and attractions, and documentary evidence about the way the Museum looked is elliptical and inexact. Guides such as the 1850 Barnum's American Museum Illustrated and occasional newspaper articles indicate the building's general layout and the contents of its exhibitions at specific moments in time. There are a number of photographs, prints, and paintings of the Museum's exterior as well as of many of its "transient attractions," but the only visual evidence of the building's interior resides in a limited number of wood-engraved illustrations from Barnum-sponsored publications and the weekly illustrated press. (Some of these documents can be found in the Archive.) While these pictures provided us with the best sense of where exhibits were placed and how the rooms were arranged, comparison with contemporary insurance maps indicated that the dimensions they portray are wildly inaccurate. Nevertheless, with the assistance of historical advisors, we created a well-informed, detailed estimation of what the Museum was like, inside and out.

When we were ready to begin programming the virtual re-creation, we used the 3-D animation program SoftImage to build a wireframe model of the entire building with specific attention to the Picture Gallery and the Waxworks Room. In the project’s later phases, we used 3-D Studio Max to model the Lecture Room and Barnum’s Office using the same building architecture. Using these programs, we created wireframe models of each room’s interior architecture (stairs, entranceways, moldings), as well as models for every item within the rooms. Using Adobe Photoshop, we created textures to wrap around the models. To complete each room, we placed items within the rooms and developed appropriate lighting. In the Picture Gallery and the Waxworks Room, still images taken from within the 3-D software were “stitched” together using QuicktimeVR Authoring Studio to create the panoramic images that users can pan over to move around in the rooms. After determining the paths a visitor would be able to take through the rooms, we rendered animations in the 3-D software. Media Cleaner Pro compressed all movies, and then we transferred all of the material into Flash; each room was initially comprised of several Flash movies.

And so The Lost Museum was painstakingly born. But digital technology, like Barnum himself, is perpetually giving us ever more sophisticated methods of display. By 2015, it had become painfully apparent that Flash was no longer practical, given the ubiquity of smartphones and tablet devices, and the conventions of web design had transformed as well. All of these changes demanded that we submit the site to some major digital renovations using new web technologies. We have replaced Flash programming with HTML5 and used JavaScript and CSS3 Media Queries to determine a browser’s width and adjust the site’s size and layout accordingly. We designed three different layouts to fit the range of devices now available. Clickable hotspots now have indicators to make the exploration of the Museum possible on tablets and phones. The vastly increased bandwith now available to internet users allowed us to re-create the site at a much higher resolution and use larger versions of the site’s several short movies.