Revealing the Charm of Oddities, June 17, 2017, 1:00 pm

Often a spectator would ask of an exhibit, ‘Is it real?’ Showman Ward Hall responds for carnys everywhere: ‘Oh, it’s all real. Some of it is really real, some of it’s really fake, but it’s all really good.” – from James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway

Inspired by the Sigal Museum’s exhibition The Cabinet of Curiosities, circus historian Madeline Hoak takes us back to the days of P.T. Barnum and explores our fascination with the strange and inexplicable. One of the first great American collections, Barnum’s American Museum of wonders, oddities, and natural history was a landmark of popular culture and a forerunner of modern museums.

Learn about Barnum’s most famous “humbugs” and media spin, as well as classic characters and events from American circus history, like Jumbo the Elephant, The Children’s Giant Pet, and Pete Conklin and his Vengeful Lemonade Stand. Make connections between the curious objects from NCHGS’s collection vault and Barnum’s sensational attractions. And think about how museums, curiosity cabinets, and circus invite us to observe things we might otherwise avoid.

What makes us excited to see a piece of history? What makes the ordinary exceptional? What is real? If the story is good, does it matter if it’s true?

Program is free with museum admission or $5 for the program only.


Madeline Hoak is a New York City-based circus performer, professor, and producer. She has been studying and teaching traditional American circus history since 2012, and performing aerial acrobatics internationally for over a decade. Madeline is an adjunct professor of aerial acrobatics at Pace University and Muhlenberg College, and will be teaching a full circus history course for Pace in 2018. When she isn’t teaching or performing, Madeline is an avid hiker, loves practicing handstands, and always looks forward to summer concerts and outdoor movies. Find out more at