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Circus Museums and Collections

by Larry Kellogg (12/04/08).

The circus is alive and well today, and the rich heritage of the past can be found in many museums and collections across the country. Whether you enjoy collecting posters, books, photographs, ephemera or clown memorabilia, you can discover more about your particular interest by visiting the following museums and collections online or in person.

Ringling Museum of the American Circus

The Tibbals Learning Center features the the Howard Bros. Circus, a three-quarter-inch-to-the-foot scale model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey during the 1920s and 1930s. That was built over a span of 50 years.

The Tibbals Learning Center features the the Howard Bros. Circus, a three-quarter-inch-to-the-foot scale model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey during the 1920s and 1930s. That was built over a span of 50 years.

Philanthropist and model builder Howard Tibbals puts the finishing touches on the Howard Bros. Circus, the largest miniature circus in the world. The circus is now on permanent display in the Ringling Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center.

Philanthropist and model builder Howard Tibbals puts the finishing touches on the Howard Bros. Circus, the largest miniature circus in the world. The circus is now on permanent display in the Ringling Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center.

The Barnum Museum was the home of well-known showman P.T. Barnum. Today it houses a vast collection of Barnum artifacts and other circus memorabilia.

The Barnum Museum was the home of well-known showman P.T. Barnum. Today it houses a vast collection of Barnum artifacts and other circus memorabilia.

The Circus World Museum’s collection houses more than 210 original wagons and vehicles once used by American, English and Irish circuses.

The Circus World Museum’s collection houses more than 210 original wagons and vehicles once used by American, English and Irish circuses.

The Ringling Museum of the Circus, located in Sarasota, Fla., originally opened in 1948 and was the first museum of its kind devoted to the history of the circus. In 2006, the Tibbals Learning Center opened, doubling the size of the Circus Museum. It features The Howard Bros. Circus, a three-quarter-inch-to-the-foot scale model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey during the 1920s and 1930s.

The model was created over a span of more than 50 years by master model builder Howard Tibbals. It covers 3,800 square feet and is the largest miniature circus in the world. The Circus Museum also features a rare collection of handbills, posters, art prints, circus paper, business records, wardrobe, props and circus equipment, including restored hand-carved parade wagons. It is located on a 66-acre estate and is part of The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, the official State Art Museum of Florida. The estate also includes Cà d’Zan (The House of John), the mansion that was the home of John and Mabel Ringling. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation.

Circus World Museum

Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wis., is located on the site of the original winter quarters of Ringling Bros. Circus. The show wintered in Baraboo for 34 years until 1918. The museum covers approximately 64 acres with about 30 permanent structures, including many original buildings. The museum’s collection houses more than 210 original wagons and vehicles once used by American, English and Irish circuses.

It also boasts a collection of more than 9,500 multi-colored circus ads and posters that range in size from half-sheets to an 80-sheet Buffalo Bill Wild West poster which measures 9 feet high and 70 feet long. Thousands of journals, manuscripts and business records are also located there, as well as original fine art oil paintings, handbills, heralds, programs, artifacts of circus performers and a collection of rare photographs and negatives.

The entire area has been declared a National Historic Landmark Site. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation.  

The International Circus Hall of Fame

The International Circus Hall of Fame is located on the circus winter quarter’s grounds established in 1892 in Peru, Ind. Over the years many different shows used this location for the winter months including the Great Wallace Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, John Robinson and Sells-Floto Circus. These quarters are where circuses of the past wintered until they left in the spring for a new circus season. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation. (http://www.circushof.com)

Barnum Museum

For many years, Bridgeport, Conn., was the home of well-known showman P.T. Barnum. He built four mansions there and was buried in the local Mountain Grove Cemetery. The Barnum Museum originally opened in 1893, two years after Barnum’s death. It was originally named The Barnum Institute of Science and History. Today it houses a vast collection of Barnum artifacts and other circus memorabilia. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation. (http://www.barnum-museum.org)

Emmett Kelly Museum

Emmett Kelly started his circus career in 1923 as a trapeze artist, but is best known for his “Weary Willie” character, the sad-faced tramp clown. The Emmett Kelly Museum is located in the historic 1896 Opera House in the home of his birth, Sedan, Kan. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation. (http://www.emmettkellymuseum.com)

The International Clown Hall of Fame

The International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, Wis. operates as a living museum of clowning. There are clown performances, special events, seminars, community oriented programs, classes and a collection of clown artifacts and a library. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation. (http://www.theclownmuseum.org)

The Somers Historical Society

The Somers Historical Society collects and archives materials related to local history and development of the Early American Circus. It is located on the third floor of the circa 1925 Elephant Hotel in Somers, N.Y. Check the museum website for days and hours of operation. (http://www.somershistoricalsoc.org/index.html)

Major Circus Collections:

Listed below are major repositories of circus memorabilia. These are not museums but collections available for research. Check the websites for more information.

Milner Library, Illinois State University

Milner Library’s Circus and Allied Arts Collection in the Illinois State University, Normal, Ill., is one of the largest and best special collections of its type in existence. It contains more than 6,000 volumes. There are also photographs, circus posters, programs, route books, correspondence, business records — more than 100,000 items in all. (http://www.library.ilstu.edu/page/870)

McCaddon Collection, Princeton University Library

The McCaddon Collection of the Barnum and Bailey Circus at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., consists of correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks and other material collected by business manager Joseph T. McCaddon prior to the 1907 merger of the circus with Ringling Bros. (http://diglib.princeton.edu/ead/getEad?id=ark:/88435/02870v897&kw=American%20history)

Toole-Stott (Raymond) Circus Collection, University of California at Santa Barbara

The Raymond Toole-Stott Circus Collection housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara, contains approximately 1,300 monographs pertaining to the circus in Great Britain, other European countries, and the United States. It was assembled by Raymond Toole-Stott, British author and compiler of the multi-volume Circus and Allied Arts: A World Bibliography. (http://www.library.ucsb.edu/speccoll/collections/pa/pamss14.html)

Robert Harold Brisendine Papers, Emory Libraries

Robert Harold Brisendine (1922-2002) was a circus researcher focusing on the routes of particular shows and recording the entertainments that visited particular cities. He never published his material, but he made it available to other circus historians. The collection of material relates to circuses, Wild West shows, animal exhibitions, vaudeville and variety shows, dramatic repertory companies, minstrel shows, and orchestras and bands. It is located in Emory University Libraries, Atlanta, Ga. (http://marbl.library.emory.edu/FindingAids/content.php?id=brisendine947_101013)

American Circus Collection, 1891-1939, The Newberry Library

This collection of circus and theater related clippings, illustrations, programs, publicity, photographs, and memorabilia was donated by Irving Kane Pond, 1891-1939. The bulk of material consists of circus programs and reviews and Circus Fans Association material dating from the 1920s-1930s. It is housed in the Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill. (http://www.newberry.org/collections/FindingAids/americancircus/AmericanCircus.html)

Circus and Buffalo Bill Collection, B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library

The Buffalo Bill Collection consists of a variety of elements including books, magazines, advertising posters and leaflets, photographs, pictorial cards of animals and circus people and special illustrations. It is located in the B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library on the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, Brookville, N.Y. (http://www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/sc/circus/intro.htm)

Circus Posters, Princeton University Library

This website lists nearly 350 classic circus posters. Many of the posters are viewable online. (http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/Circus/TC093.html)

 

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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