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History of the Circus Museum

It was thought to be ostentatious for a man of John Ringling’s generation to bring attention to the source of his wealth. As a result, the idea of a Museum celebrating the history of the American Circus was not Ringling’s but A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr.’s, The Ringlings’ first Director and a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

Established in 1948, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus was the first to document the rich history of this phenomenally popular entertainment. And because in 1927 John Ringling had made Sarasota the Winter Quarters of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, many of the performers moved to the immediate area. As a result of their generosity, the Museum’s collection of wardrobes and circus memorabilia quickly grew.

Today, the Circus Museum is home to the newly restored Wisconsin. Worthy of the man called the “King of the Circus”, the Wisconsin is the railroad car on which John and Mable Ringling traveled across the country looking for feature acts that would keep audiences filling the seats of the big top.

Visitors to the museum will find performers’ wardrobes, performing props, as well as all types of equipment, including beautifully carved parade wagons, sturdy utility wagons, tent poles, massive bail rings that suspended the tent canvas and even a cannon that shot fearless performers across the big top. There is also an incredible wealth of 19th and early 20th century posters and props used by famous performers as well as a large collection of circus history and literature that includes newspaper clippings dating as far back as 1816.  A must-see in the Museum is the film The Life and Times of John and Mable Ringling, narrated by Hal Holbrook. It features the lives of John and Mable Ringling, the history of Ringling Bros. circus, the building of the Ca’ d’Zan and the Museum of Art, as well as John’s influence in the development of Sarasota.

In January of 2006, the Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center opened to house posters, special exhibitions and its centerpiece – the 3,800 square foot Howard Bros. Circus Model, a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus combined shows from 1919-1938.

The Tibbals Learning Center also houses The Greatest Show on Earth, a 924-square-foot mural depicting the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® show of the 1970s and 80s. Donated by the Feld family and Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®, this colossal work salutes such feature acts as aerialist Dolly Jacobs, her father, master clown Lou Jacobs, and the celebrated animal presenter Gunther Gebel-Williams.

In 2012, a  west wing was added to the Tibbals Learning Center. Here, visitors to these interactive galleries can walk the wire, squeeze into a clown car and have their picture take with a faux tiger.

The 12,000-square-foot second floor houses the Archives that houses one of the country’s most important collections of rare handbills and art prints, circus papers, business records, heralds and photos.

So much of this has been made possible by the generosity of Howard Tibbals and his wife Janice. Tibbals fell in love with the circus as a boy and devoted his life to creating the miniature circus and lending his family name to the Learning Center.

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