Project Description

It was P.T. Barnum who defined the American circus experience as we know it today—the big top with three rings, wild animals, acrobats, aerialists, and other magical performers.


Under the Big Top: Festival of Trees 2011 is a dazzling, fun-filled holiday extravaganza with more than a hundred decorated holiday trees scattered throughout Berkshire Museum’s galleries.

November 18, 2011 – January 2, 2012
Proudly sponsored by Greylock Federal Credit Union.

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891) was an American showman, businessman, and entertainer. In 1841, Barnum began his career by purchasing Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York City. It wasn’t until Barnum was 60 years old that he began his circus career, when P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut. By the time it ended in 1865, P.T. Barnum was the biggest promoter of individual attractions the world had ever known. Barnum & Bailey joined Ringling Bros. in 1919 to form the most famous circus in American history. At its peak, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus needed one hundred rail cars and required fourteen acres of land for all of the equipment, animals, and performers. Ten thousand spectators would push into the tents. The early 1900s saw the peak and then the eventual decline of the American circus. Enormous economic and social change—the Great Depression, two World Wars, along with the advent of “talking pictures”—began to draw audiences away from the circus tents.

Collection of The Barnum Museum