A Sideshow of The Big Show

In the winter of 1841, while a young soft-spoken Quaker named Thomas Story Kirkbride began to charter a new course in the relatively new field of mental health, at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia, another unique institution at the corner of Broadway in the heart of New York City opened its doors to the public.  The American Museum, run by P.T. Barnum, who would become the nation’s greatest showman, offered the public masses a series of exhibitions that helped to give audiences a chance to decompress and amuse themselves.  However, when we look back through the contemporary lens with which we view these scenes, we cannot help but feel both fascinated and somewhat shamed.  Fascinated, on the one hand, for the fact that these exhibitions included a host of things that are unusual; so much so in fact that they seem to defy our imagination.  And shamed of course for the fact that these amusements came at the expense of other peoples dignity.  What is interesting is that while Barnum was making a profit off of his exhibitions, so was Kirkbride for allowing people to examine the facilities he was running to attract potential philanthropic interest.  Although there is difference between the two men’s motives and professions, this offers us something in the way of understanding the ethos of the time.  The following link   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gq5i36VcN7g offers something to reflect on in the way of how we consider these two men and the time that shaped their moral compass’, both socially as well as individually.

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