Although we were born into a generation exposed to a plethora of entertainment options, we never really got to enjoy the excitement and the allure of the circus as kids. So a few weeks ago, we visited The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art--the first museum of its kind to document the history of the circus--to see what it must have been like to experience "The Greatest Show on Earth".


Established in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1884, The Ringling Bros. Circus is considered to be among the biggest circuses in the world today. After acquiring their rival circus company Barnum & Bailey in 1907, the company became known as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus Shows. Under the slogan “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus have been entertaining the world for almost 150 years with gymnastic performances, acrobatic stunts, clown skits, animal shows, and many other popular circus routines.

Ringling Costumes - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

When Ringling Bros. Circus co-founder John Ringling and his wife Mable decided to move the circus headquarters to Sarasota in 1927, they started to develop a property which would later become the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The 66-acre estate is now the 16th largest museum in the United States, home to the art museum, circus museum, Tibbals Learning Center (added in 2012), and the Ca' d'Zan Mansion.

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The Miniature Circus at Tibbal's Learning Center

To get a sense of what a touring circus looked like back in the old days, we decided to make our first stop at the museum's Tibbals Learning Center. Inside the center is a miniature circus painstakingly built by the circus collector and sculptor Howard Tibbals. The diorama, made up of 42,000 items, was started by Tibbals in 1956 and took many decades to finish.

Diorama overhead view #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

As soon as we walked into the exhibit, we were immediately captivated by the immensity of Tibbals' diorama and the breathtaking detail of his work. We saw miniature circus cargo and animals being unloaded from a long line of railway cars, circus workers setting up equipment behind the big top tents, children running around and circus patrons enjoying the circus shows. Peeking under one of the miniature circus's huge top tents, we were even surprised to see dozens of mechanized miniature trapeze performers whirling in the air to circus music!
The Tibbals Learning Center also includes interactive exhibits that allow visitors to "walk" a tightrope wire, fire a mini cannon, pose beside a fiberglass tiger, and stand on a horse's back (also made of fiberglass, of course). Among the activities that we really quite enjoyed was spinning a zoetrope that played an animation of a juggling clown, and squeezing into this tiny clown car replica you see below:

Clown Car - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The Circus Museum

The Circus Museum, just behind the Tibbals Learning Center, houses some of the most valuable items in the Ringling Bros. Circus's history. Among the antique props, posters, and circus relics displayed in its galleries, visitors can find intricately carved horse-drawn wooden carriages, railroad cars, and trailers once used to transport the entire circus to different cities in the United States.

Zacchini's Cannon - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The museum does such a great job curating the different types of circus transportation from the wooden wagons to the modern trailers (to this day, the Ringling circus still mostly uses the railway). The exhibit also gives people a glimpse into the lives of circus workers back in the old days and how they managed to keep the show going anywhere they went.

The Art Museum

After our visit to the Circus Museum, we headed to the Art Museum where the Ringling family's private collection of over 10,000 artworks are kept. The museum building is a giant piece of art in itself with its pink walls and tall arches extolling the classic elegance of Renaissance architecture. Apart from touring the galleries, visitors can also walk around the museum's well-manicured garden and admire the Hellenic sculptures and ornate fountains that adorn the space.

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The Ringling Museum of Art's eclectic art collection from different periods makes it a magnet for art lovers. And it helps to know that the Art museum is free of charge to the public on Mondays. (although you have to pay the $25.00 full admission to access the other museum attractions.)

Gallery 1 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The art museum has 21 galleries that display works from artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Marcel DuChamp, Diego Velazquez, Nicolas Poussin, and Eugene Baudin among many others. Apart from the classic art exhibits, the museum also boasts a collection of antiquities from different parts of the world.

Gallery 2 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Enjoying The Sunset at Ca' d'Zan

After viewing the paintings and sculptures at the art museum for hours, we ended our beautiful day at the Ca' d'Zan watching the sunset over Sarasota Bay. Born out of John and Mable's obsession with Venice, the Ca' d'Zan, which means "House of John" in Venetian, is a Venetian Gothic style mansion built to replicate the couple's favorite place in the Mediterranean.
In front of the picturesque Ca' d'Zan, we settled into our lounge chairs to soak in the golden afternoon rays reflecting off the calm waters. The colorful mosaic walls and floors glowing brightly in the sun made the whole place feel like some exotic Mediterranean dream. There was simply no other word to describe that moment other than it was "magical."

Cadzan 3 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The End of A Great Era

After a 146-year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently announced that their last performance will be in May 2017, citing poor ticket sales compounded by pressure from animal rights activists to retire their circus animals. After hearing the news, it's become clear to us that the Ringling Museum's role in preserving circus history will be that much more important in the coming years. When the Ringling Circus closes the curtains for the last time, it is up to the Ringling Museum to keep the legacy THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH alive for the next generations.

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