Just one part of the extensive Ringling complex that sits on Sarasota Bay in Sarasota, Florida, the Ringling Circus Museum is a treat for young and old. Situated on the grounds of what was once the winter home of the famed Ringling Bros. Circus, the museum touts the history of the circus and gives guest a chance to view rare artifacts and other items associated with "The Greatest Show on Earth'' and its connection to this west central Florida town.
The Ringling Circus Museum was established in 1948 and was the first museum in the United States to document the history and grandeur of the circus, specifically, the Ringling Family Circus. Most of the items on display are from the early days of the circus though visitors will find a few modern items as well, and a forthcoming addition - set to open sometime in 2012 - will give the museum an updated look and provide visitors with a chance to be a circus performer and experience "the magic of the center ring.'' That new exhibit will also profile the lives of some of Ringling's most famous circus personalities.
Currently, the museum has a number of notable exhibits that are fun and interesting to view. By far, one of the most fascinating is The Howard Brothers Circus Model, a tiny replica of the Ringling Bros. Circus based on the era when the tented circus was at its largest, from approximately 1919 to 1938. The replica was produced by master model builder Howard Tibbals, who has been a life-long fan of the circus. Tibbals began crafting the replica in 1956 and it took 50 years to complete in its entirety, though it has been a part of the museum for many years. Tibbals miniature circus includes eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 circus performers and workers, more than 800 animals and a 57-car train. It occupies 3,800 square feet inside a building named for the Tennessee philanthropist.
Also inside the Tibbals Learning Center is an interesting exhibition of circus posters spanning decades. The poster was the best way for the circus to advertise the fact that they were coming to a particular town and several lithographers specialized in printing these colorful posters. The collection at the museum ranges from one-sheet posters of about 42'' x 28'' to enormous posters that may have been plastered on barns or on the sides of other commercial buildings, touting the circus' arrival.
Guests can also view circus parade wagons, colorful costumes, and a wealth of photos from decades of circus history. Also on display is The Wisconsin, John and Mable Ringling's private rail car, built in 1905, and used by the Ringlings to travel throughout the country with the circus or on other business.
A visit to the Ringling Circus Museum is included with general admission to the Ringling property, which also provides access to the other museums on the site. Tours are self-guided or docent-led.