Tibbals Learning Center Expansion a Boon for Circus Researchers, Scholars, Historians

Two historic circus wagons dominate the entrance to the new wing of the Tibbals Learning Center. The Five Graces bandwagon was built in 1878 for the Adam Forepaugh show. Later it toured Europe with Barnum & Bailey, pulled by a team of 40 horses. It is the oldest American circus wagon in existence. The Two Jesters Calliope wagon was originally built for Sells-Floto Circus and houses a 36-whistle steam instrument, the largest in the world.

SARASOTA, Fla. — With the recent opening of the New Wing of the Tibbals Learning Center, the Ringling Circus Museum at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is now the most significant circus archival and interactive space in the United States. Public exhibit space in the Tibbals Learning Center includes Howard Bros. Circus, which is the world’s largest miniature circus, the Circus in America panoramic display, featuring a historical timeline, plus circus ephemera from the legendary huckster, P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb. The newly added 11,000 square-foot Interactive Circus Space is where “children of all ages” can learn firsthand about the past, present and future of the American circus.

In addition to the public exhibits, the New Wing’s second floor houses the Tibbals Center for the Study of the American Circus. This is an educational facility for circus research by scholars, historians and curators with 12,475 square feet of climate controlled archival storage space. The new state-of-the-art storage facility, complete with LED lighting and computer-monitored climate control, provides space for one of the world’s largest circus paper collections, including more than 5,700 distinct historical circus posters.

The Tibbals Center for the Study of the American Circus features high density, storage shelving units in a room with more than 12,000 square feet of storage space.

The Howard Bros. Circus—a miniature with 50,000 pieces, including eight main tents, 55 railroad cars, 152 circus wagons, 1,500 performers and circus personnel, plus more than 700 circus animals—was created over a 50-year time span by master model builder, Howard C. Tibbals. The huge, yet tiny miniature circus occupies 3,800 sq. ft. and is on permanent display. It is enclosed within a hermetically sealed and climate-controlled 75,000 cubic foot encasement. One of my previous articles, titled “You Too Can Be a Circus Owner,” takes a look at Howard Bros Miniature Circus.

The Circus in America exhibit features a timeline that traces the history of the circus from antiquity to the modern-day Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Big Apple Circus, Cirque du Soleil and other shows. Noted pieces of circus ephemera on display include paintings, figurines, a silver tea service set from the home of P.T. Barnum, a diminutive chair, a tiny tuxedo, walking cane and sword belonging to General Tom Thumb, plus a circus chariot used in hippodrome races in the 1920s and a 150-foot miniature circus street parade featuring more than 500 hand-carved animals.

The ground floor of the new wing of the Tibbals Learning Center features interactive displays which include videos of circus performers past and present.

The new wing also includes a family-friendly Interactive Circus Space that focuses on the circus performance and is divided into different performance areas: acrobats and aerialists: performing animals and their trainers: clowns: daredevils: the ringmaster: and circus spectacles. There is also a hands-on circus family area, a theater and an education space. The exhibits explore the common ties linking all circuses past and present.

Photos courtesy of the Ringling Circus Museum.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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