NPR’s Bob Mondello has a highly recommended segment on museums as big businesses grappling with their conflicting roles in research and entertainment. He notes that combined attendance at all major league sports events was about 140 million, while American museums will attract 850 million visitors.
Peale’s collection and others were bought up in the 1840s by Phineas T. Barnum, who added some showmanship to the enterprise. In the pre-photography era, when a painting of the Grand Canyon could draw block-long lines. P.T. Barnum took the static curiosities in the collections he’d acquired and added “live” curiosities — industrious fleas, a hippo that he told audiences was “The Great Behemoth of the Scriptures” and assorted bearded ladies.
“The earliest museums really were, for lack of a better term, they were kind of freak shows,” historian Stephen Asma, author of Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, told NPR in 2002. “The bizarre was collected together with sober specimens with no real order or organization.”
Though Asma says curators didn’t have the “scientific agenda” that they do today, that agenda wasn’t being neglected. Around the time Barnum was turning his museums into carnivals, a somewhat startled U.S. Congress was dealing with an unexpected bequest from an Englishman named James Smithson. His will asked for the establishment of a Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”