Creating the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection –
Supported by FUNDING from the National Endowment for the Humanities
Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now. – Phineas T. Barnum
In June 2010, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut was hit by an EF-1 tornado. The building sustained major damage and the collections sustained varying degrees of damage as well. The Museum is the last surviving building attributed to the American visionary entrepreneur and showman, Phineas T. Barnum, who was no stranger to disasters himself, having lost two museum buildings as well as his home to catastrophic fires.
The estimate of structural damage is in the millions. Yet, in true Barnum-style, after the tornado hit the museum staff hand-scrawled "The Show Must Go On!" on the boarded up front windows.
Museum Curator Adrienne Saint-Pierre was initially hired to deal with the aftermath of the tornado. All the collections had to be removed from the building and put into storage, and Ms. Saint-Pierre worked with conservators to assess the damaged collection materials, which range from items such as documents, books, and photographs to more unusual objects such as top hats, uniforms, furniture, and a carriage in the shape of a nut.
Research Demand for the Barnum Collection
While Ms. Saint-Pierre was working with the collection, she was surprised by the volume of research requests the Museum received on a regular basis. The Museum had a small staff of five people, and it was not easy to manage the ongoing recovery work while also answering inquiries and scheduling researchers. The Museum was not fully open then, and remains only partially open today, more than eight years later, due to ongoing repairs to the building.
P. T. Barnum embarked on multiple careers during his lifetime. He is of course well-known as the circus showman and museum proprietor, but less known are his efforts as urban developer, politician, philanthropist, lecturer, and author. As a result, the research potential of the Barnum collection crosses several disciplines and among many fields of study. These include studies of American social and political history, anthropology, popular culture, and the history of business practices, including marketing, media, and communications, as well as art and architectural history and literature.
“It really hit home,” Saint-Pierre explains, “when we had two different PhD candidates request multiple days of research using the Museum’s collections, one coming from Australia and one from London.” The Barnum Museum is always eager to share the collection for researchers, but the items they wanted to see were fragile, and Saint-Pierre became very concerned that all the handling was putting the materials at risk over time. “I knew right then,” she says, “we had to get these collections digitized and accessible online, or they were not going to be long for this world.”
The Road to Digitization
With so much of the Museum’s fundraising efforts going toward disaster recovery, Saint-Pierre was beginning to wonder how it would be possible to tackle such an immense digitization project. By a lucky coincidence, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) introduced a new grant category to its Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) grants in 2012. The program’s overall aim is to strengthen efforts to extend the life of humanities collections and make their intellectual content widely accessible. The program offered two types of grants, HCRR Implementation grants, and the new HCRR Foundations grants, which could be used to fund a pilot project or the planning phase of a larger project.
The NEH HCRR Foundations Grant, 2013-2014
Realizing that there was a lot of work to do before the actual digitization could happen, the Barnum Museum partnered with the Bridgeport History Center, part of the Bridgeport Public Library, which held its own collection of P.T. Barnum materials. They decided to apply for an HCRR Foundations planning grant, which could fund the work required to identify and prioritize materials for digitization. It would also cover the work of developing project-specific selection criteria, evaluating technical requirements, and exploring third-party service arrangements.
Planning for “The Greatest Digitization Project on Earth”
With full appreciation for the task ahead – and with the excitement you’d expect from a Barnum production, the team named the project: “Planning for ‘The Greatest Digitization Project on Earth’ with the P.T. Barnum Collections of the Barnum Museum and the Bridgeport Public Library.”
They gathered all the necessary information, developed their grant proposal and submitted it in July 2012. Notification of their grant award came in April 2013, and the project began in May of that year.
VIEW THE MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS of the Barnum NEH HCRR Foundations one-year planning grant here:
Next Phase – Timing Causes One-Year Delay
As the Barnum Museum and partners finished up the HCRR Foundations one-year grant project, the July 2014 deadline for the NEH Implementation grant was fast approaching. They realized that they would not be able to gather as detailed an implementation proposal as needed in time to meet the deadline, so they decided to wait until the next grant deadline a year later, July 2015, to submit their proposal, (and then to wait nine months to hear if it was awarded.)
In the meantime, they continued prioritizing the conservation needs of the collection, and two valuable ledger books from the Bridgeport History Center's collection were conserved at NEDCC, as they realized that the treatment of these rare and fragile objects should not be delayed. While at NEDCC, the ledger books were also digitized in the Center’s Imaging Studios, in collaboration with conservators. Almost immediately after treatment and digitization of these volumes, a PhD candidate from London was able to use the digital surrogates in his research, further reaffirming the need for conservation of the at-risk materials, and digitization for access to this unique and sought-after collection.
HCRR Implementation Grant Awarded 2016 – Onward!
Having received the grant award in March 2016, the 20-month project began in May. The grant project was designed to build on the recommendations made during the NEH planning grant phase, and the team made sure to employ current standards and best practices for all aspects of the implementation process, including conservation, care and handling of collections, image capture, creation of metadata, and the management, preservation, and sustainability of the digital assets, as well as creating public access.
VIEW THE MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS of the Barnum NEH HCRR Implementation Grant here:
BARNUM COLLECTION ACCESS
Just the Beginning
As this grant project wraps up, we are realizing that the P.T. Barnum Collections resource we have created is just the beginning, and sets the stage for greater things to come.
“We are thrilled at all we were able to accomplish with this project,” comments Curator Adrienne Saint-Pierre, “and are grateful for the funding we received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the invaluable work of superb vendors and the expertise and dedication of the project staff we hired, Meghan Rinn and Susan Luchars, and our scholar consultant, Kasey Grier. Museum volunteer Tova Clayman, and two student interns, Olivia Melendez and Whitney Moss also contributed countless hours to the planning and implementation, undertaking a lot of painstaking and skilled prep work. John Swing, the Barnum Museum’s Assistant Director and COO, was superb at managing our budget and expenditures, and Executive Director Kathleen Maher was invariably enthusiastic and appreciative of the project’s value. We were hugely fortunate to have such an excellent team!”
“As this grant project wraps up," explains Saint-Pierre, “we are realizing that the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection resource we have created is just the beginning, and sets the stage for greater things to come. We are learning about related digital projects at other institutions, and see excellent potential for connecting with these and exponentially expanding the utility of the digitized resources, both ours and theirs. Right now, the best part is that we can share our material with people all over the country and abroad; it’s a dream come true for both the Museum and History Center that we can now do this, and moreover that the high quality of the image files and the CTDA’s user tools makes online research a joy, not a tedious chore.”
If P. T. Barnum were alive today, he would certainly be excited by outcome of this project, achieving what he so often expressed, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.”
The P. T. Barnum Digital Collection is now available for researchers through the University of Connecticut's Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).
Be sure to browse the collection to view the breadth and depth of information now available on the collection, including "ABC: A Barnum Companion," which offers Classroom Materials, Biographies, Glossaries, and Guides to the Barnum Museum Archives.
LEARN MORE about the Barnum Museum.
LEARN MORE about the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant programs.
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DIGITIZATION AT NEDCC
NEDCC Collections Photographer Amelia Murphy digitizes a large advertising broadside using a medium format digital camera. The Center is equipped with an oversize imaging station, capable of digitizing even very large maps, posters, prints, and works of art on paper.
A microspatula is used to aid in the handling of a particularly fragile broadside.
A Collection Photographer readies the next page of the Fairy Wedding Album for digital image capture/digitization. Many of the objects in the collection contained multiple pages, complicated fold-outs, and other challenges. NEDCC's photographers are skilled at working with complex and fragile materials.
CONSERVATION TREATMENT OF THE P.T. BARNUM LETTER COPY BOOK, 1845-1846
One of the most important volumes in the Barnum collection was also conserved at NEDCC before it was digitized in the Center’s Imaging Studios. The P.T. Barnum Letter Copy Book contains a wealth of primary information dating to the most significant time period in Barnum's early career. The letters date to Barnum’s and Charles S. Stratton’s travels in France, following a highly successful year in England where Stratton, better known as "Gen. Tom Thumb," was granted multiple audiences with Queen Victoria.
NEDCC’s conservation labs and imaging studios work closely together on projects requiring both conservation treatment and digitization. Conservators are able to consult with collections photographers to determine the best approach for imaging an object and advise on careful handling of rare and fragile materials. This further protects the material, provides efficiency, and captures the information at the safest and most appropriate time, while conservation treatment ensures the long-term preservation of the original object.
The cover features a leather label tooled in gold with the name of the manufacturer. This particular volume is a letter copy book, which was one of the earlier methods for making copies of correspondence and other important documents. The binding had been repaired prior to it coming to NEDCC for imaging, and the Museum’s primary goal for conservation was to stabilize the text block for digitization.
Copy books allowed users to save time by eliminating the need to write additional copies by hand. A carbon-impregnated paper was placed beneath a tissue-thin, semi-transparent piece of copy paper along with a rigid support to prevent the carbon from spreading to the paper below. The author (in this case, P.T. Barnum) then placed the letter or document on top of the copy paper and carbon and wrote their text. The pressure of the pen transferred the carbon onto the verso of the copy paper, resulting in a mirror image of the text. The copy paper was transparent enough that the text could easily be read from the recto.
The majority of the text consists of tissue-thin leaves of copy paper, with a tabbed index at the front of the binding composed of a medium-weight, opaque ruled paper with hand-drawn letters. The index paper is less fragile and easier to read than the copy paper, and required less extensive conservation treatment.
The primary goal of conservation was to stabilize the volume for digitization. This meant that only areas at imminent risk of further damage during imaging, or where the text was obscured, were treated. Stabilization for digitization does not preclude further conservation treatment if an institution decides to
pursue it in the future.
The pages were dirty and needed to be cleaned prior to imaging and conservation. While accumulation of dust and soot is typical over time, the carbon copy medium was also offsetting onto the adjacent paper, making it more difficult to see the text underneath in some areas. The rectos of the leaves were gently cleaned with a vulcanized rubber sponge to remove the majority of the accumulated dirt and carbon powder. Because the carbon copy medium was so friable, any type of surface cleaning risked erasure of the text, so the versos were not cleaned.
After cleaning the rectos, the gutters were cleaned with a soft brush to remove any debris lodged in the fold.
Many leaves had folded corners that made reading the text difficult or impossible. Before imaging, these folds were flattened so that the imaging team could capture the full text.
Some folds were so deeply creased that they needed to be flattened with a local application of filtered water followed by a tacking iron. The paper and carbon medium were sensitive to moisture, so the tacking iron was used to dry the paper quickly and minimized the length of time that the leaves and text were exposed to humidity.
Some leaves had folds and creases that occurred when the book was improperly closed. These folds are more complex than single corner folds because they overlap each other, making the act of unfolding them into a puzzle. The folds were often located near the gutter, leaving less room
for the conservator to maneuver.
After conservation treatment, the page lies flat and a reader can once again access the text.
As the main goal of treatment for this object was to stabilize the text block for digitization, the binding was not treated and the majority of small page tears present in the text were not mended. Only vulnerable areas with large tears at imminent risk of further damage were repaired. Because the copy paper was so translucent, thin, and lightweight, choosing a mending material was difficult - all Japanese papers were visible after mending and many were too heavy to function effectively as a repair.
The eventual conservation treatment for these tears involved teasing apart Japanese kozo paper into individual fibers and securing the single strands with wheat starch paste perpendicular to the tear. The repairs were invisible and flexible, yet strong, and minimized the need to introduce moisture.
Because the binding had not been structurally altered during treatment, it still fit into its previous box. The box protects the book from exposure to light and dust, changes in humidity, wear and tear on the shelf, and damage during transportation and handling. In general, boxes are highly recommended as a preservation strategy and are often the first line of defense for books in long-term storage.
THE P.T. BARNUM DIGITAL COLLECTION
The Barnum Museum's collection is especially unusual because many of the paper-based materials are associated with other 3D objects in the collection, so it is most valuable to be able to search the digital collection and view all the associated images in one place.
Since the recent release of the musical, "The Greatest Showman," there has been an even greater surge of interest in All Things Barnum. In the spirit of fun, the Museum has even created several events to separate fact from Hollywood fiction about the legendary entrepreneur and showman, and the collections vividly tell the true story from primary sources and original objects.
Here are some highlights from the collection.
A paper doll of Lavinia Warren Stratton, Tom Thumb's wife, shown wearing a corset - and the actual corset she wore in performances.
A print of Major Tom Thumb wearing his Napoleon costume . . .
. . . and the jacket and boots from the costume.
(Print image courtesy of Bridgeport History Center.)
Print of P. T. Barnum’s Moorish revival-style mansion called Iranistan, which he built in 1847-1848 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Courtesy of Bridgeport History Center.)
P.T. Barnum's gold ring fashioned with an image of "Iranistan."
Detail of Barnum's home, "Marina," showing a Japanese vase near the doorway.
The same Japanese vase shown in the photo above, now part of the collection at the Barnum Museum.
Story by Julie Martin NEDCC, with help from Adrienne Saint-Pierre, Curator, Barnum Museum.
Thanks also to MP Bogan and Mary French, NEDCC Book Conservation department; and Terrance D'Ambrosio and Tim Gurczak, NEDCC Imaging Services.
All images courtesy of the Barnum Museum (and the Bridgeport History Center, as noted.)