Who Burned Down Barnum’s Museum?: 19th Century Social Conflict

Who Burned Down Barnum’s Museum?: 19th Century Social Conflict
Lou Hoover: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three Hours


As a child, one way that Lou Hoover entertain herself was  by entertaining others.  She played Joan of Arc in a school play and organized masquerade balls for her friends birthdays.  Lou also was commonly known in the neighborhood for her ability to produce circuses.  In these circuses, she assigned children to play different roles.  For those not in the circus, she provided an invitation to watch the circus.  Lou’s interest in entertaining others perhaps made her aware of a very famous showman. P. T. Barnum, owner of the American Museum.    


In this lesson students will gain an understanding of the American Museum and social conflict in 19th century America.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet with Flash 7 and audio capacity


Provide students with a brief background of P. T. Barnum and the American Museum.  Information on this topic is readily available at the Who Burned Down the American Museum.
Divide the class into pairs or small groups depending on the availability of computers.
If a projector is available for a computer, together as a class, watch the movie introducing the museum; if a projector is not available have each small group watch the movie individually.
Have each small group explore the 3-D American Museum for approximately 15 minutes.  Make sure to tell students to move their cursor over images and when a question mark appears to click and get a closer look.
Notify the class that an arsonist burned down the American Museum and that they will be solving the mystery.
Assign each group one the task of reading each of the following 800 word essays:
Race and Race Relations in P. T. Barnum’s New York City
Reform and Reformers in the Antebellum Era
Barnum and Science in the Antebellum Era
A City Divided: New York and the Civil War
Urban Popular Culture in the Age of Barnum
Notify students that before reading essays to look for clues for a suspects:  Also notify students that to solve their mystery they must read the essay as well as clicking on the primary source links at the bottom of each essay and reading further.  The suspects they find should fall into the following categories:
Race and Race Relations - Abolitionist Suspect Reform and Reformers - Animal Advocate Suspect Barnum and Science - Man of Science Suspect A City Divided - Copperhead Suspect Urban Popular Culture - Bowery B'hoy Suspect
Once students have completed reading their essay and the accompanying primary sources have them register for and begin the game.  Registration is necessary for use of the online notebook.  Navigation of the game is fairly simple. Tell students to simply wave the cursor around on the museum page and click when a question mark appears.  Clicking when a question mark appears will result in numerous possibilities – archive, psst, and/or clue.  Tell students to click on each for further information.  Clicking on “clue” will result in another mini-film.  After students watch the film they will have a question to answer.  Answering the question will result in the item being placed in the notebook.  Clicking on the archive links will provide students with a glimpse of the museum as well as life in antebellum New York City.
When they have completed the game have students hand-in a copy of their notebook as well as who they think is guilty.

Extending the Lesson:

To extend this lesson have a class debate on who is guilty of burning down the American Museum.

Sources & Resources:

The Lost Museum: American Museum
Who Burned Down the American Museum 

   Adams, Bluford. (1997).  E. Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
   Barnum, P. T., Barnum, P. P. and Barnum, P. T. (1880).  Art of Money Getting.  Bedford: Applewood Books. 
   Barnum, P. T. (2000).  The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself.  Chicago:  University of Illinois. 
   Cook, J. W. (2005). The Colossal P. T. Barnum Reader: NOTHING ELSE LIKE IT IN THE UNIVERSE. Chicago: University of Illinois. 
   Harris, N. (1973).  Humbug:  The Art of P. T. Barnum.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
   Kunhardt, P.B. Jr. (1995).  P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman.   New York: Knopf. 
   Saxon, A. H. (1989).  P. T. Barnum.  New York: Columbia University Press.
Credits: This lesson was written by American Social History Productions, Inc., http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/16/  and adapted by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University