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The Ringling News

09 August 2023

Celebrating Howard Tibbals, Creator of the Howard Bros. Circus Model

by The Ringling

the interior view of a model wagon with shelves, open drawers, and an open safe with bundles of cash inside
the exterior view of a model red wagon with its doors and windows open
A miniature model of a clown walking a goose on a leash

Howard Tibbals longtime philanthropist and creator of the Howard Bros. Circus Model, was born on August 10, in 1936. In honor of Howard’s amazing legacy of circus history stewardship, here are some facts you may not know about his 3,800-square-foot model circus, on view in the Tibbals Learning Center:

Over 3 million people have seen the Howard Bros. Circus Model at The Ringling. And before it became a part of The Ringling’s permanent collection, the model also toured the United States, charming audiences all over the country, including at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC; the Museum of Science and Industry in Rochester, New York; and even at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The model includes over 42,000 pieces. Howard continued to add to the model throughout his life. Museum visitors would occasionally see him popping up through the access hatches inside the glass case, making additions or adjustments.

There is an extensive electrical, lighting, and AV network underneath the model. This “basement under the Big Top,” invisible to visitors, is about 8 feet high and allows staff to update and repair the model’s lights, sounds, and videos as needed.

The construction of the Howard Bros. Model Circus officially began in 1956, when Howard was a freshman in college, although he’d fallen in love with the circus years before that as a young child. For more than sixty years after he first began, Howard devoted many hours every week to building pieces for the model. The last wagon was added in April of 2021, and Howard passed away in March 2022.

The model is historically accurate. It’s at a ¾” scale and represents the tented Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus of the early 20th century. Howard definitely did his research while creating the model! He began collecting materials documenting circus history; today, the Tibbals Circus Collection includes photographs, posters and other advertising materials, programs, scrapbooks, correspondence, design drawings, costumes, and props, as well as more than two thousand books related to the circus. Thousands of pieces in the Tibbals Circus Collection have been digitized and can be viewed online at emuseum.ringling.org.

Howard named the circus after himself—but that wasn’t his original plan! As a young man, Howard wrote to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus asking their permission to use their logos and names on his model. Permission was denied, so he named the circus Howard Bros. instead.

No details were overlooked—even though the average visitor may never see them. The model of the ticket wagon, where circus attendees would purchase their tickets, has doors and windows that actually open. Inside the wagon, there is a safe with rolls of cash and cabinets that open to reveal books. Every piece, no matter how tiny, is documented and carefully tracked by the museum’s staff.

 The Howard Bros. Circus Model celebrates the magic of the American circus and shares that magic with visitors from all over the world. We are grateful for Howard Tibbals’s lifelong dedication to this project and for how it continues to inspire our collective imaginations.

Fun Finds! See if you can spot these marvelous miniature details the next time you visit:

— A tumble off a bicycle

— A performer (May Wirth) washing her hair

— Lizards for sale on the Midway

— A runaway elephant

— A daring dive inside the big top

Want to go even further behind the scenes of the Howard Bros. Circus Model? Check out this recorded program from 2020 that captures the insights of museum staff who care for the model.