My Day at The Ringling Circus Museum

Welcome to the SHOW!

circus enterance
Courtesy of the Ringling Museum

Who doesn’t love the circus? I do well except clowns they scare the shit out of me. Regardless of that, down in Sarasota Florida is one of the best Circus Museums in the country. It sits on the palatial and manicured grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art which rests on the shores of Sarasota Bay. Yes Ringling, the king of Circus’s. I will get to the art museum part in the next travel post since that deserves its own.

Do to my affinity for dogs i found this print of classic circus art for my souvenir

Several years ago on my first trip to Sarasota I went to this circus museum and loved the vintage feel of some of the old circus stuff. Back then you walked into a building that looked similar to an old circus tent. On this trip with Stacey along with me now I was surprised to see the Circus exhibit got a whole new shiny building with a pristine and modern face lift inside and out. I thought it was fitting, considering the history inside its walls which deserves an excellent space. I tried my best to see it from new eyes this time and forget what I had seen before. It helped everything had been redone since 8 years ago.

Giant painting at the entrance to the Circus Museum
Giant painting at the entrance to the Circus Museum

There is something really inspiring about seeing the old ads and print art used in the old heyday of the circus. There were truly art on their own level and started many trends in advertising. The museum was loaded up with historical artifacts and oddities stretching the entire length of our nation’s history and even across the sea to England. I learned more on this trip about the history of circus then I did before. Everything was brilliantly setup and explained. Up on the second floor of the museum, on a wall in one of the rooms sits a timeline of the history of what has become known to us as the Circus. I never realized the first circus in America started just a few short years after the founding of our country. It was quite amazing to see the changes and transitions made over the years and where they coincide with other events in the history of our nation and world. One thing I realized was that PT Barnum was the Bill Gates of the circus world and had an absolutely brilliant mind for creating spectacles and entertaining people.

Rescued Circus add
Vintage Rescued Circus add


One of my favorite things I saw on the last trip and again on this trip was the model of the circus. This display went through an immense restoration and reorganizing. Now, you walk into a room with a glass case stretching to the ceiling and walk along it. Something different about this trip was the story it told about what went into putting up circus for a few days in towns across America. It showed the entire process as the first set of trains pulled into a town to begin the setup for the circus performers, the arrival of the performers and animals, the set-up of all the tents or how things were organized and everything that was involved. I wasn’t able before now to understand the immensity of the circus process. Within hours of the circus rolling into town the curtains were up and the first show was being performed. This process involved hundreds of people both laborers and performers.

In real life the tent on the left held 13,000 people.


On my previous trip everything was sort of hodgepodge together with little explanation as to why. It was dusty, dirty and unloved. Back then I was like, “oh neat a little circus model…looks horrible”. NOW it all makes sense.

IMG_20140307_112947_146 IMG_20140307_113007_815

So much detail went into this model which I might add was all handmade by one man who specialized in circus models. You will be able to see the detail in the pictures in this post. The new exhibit had plaques which explained the setup process from start to end as you walked around the U-shaped exhibit so you really understood the effort put into it. Sporadically were old videos of circus moments of the past which themselves, really cool too see on their own.


IMG_20140307_114128_123 IMG_20140307_113128_321

This really made you understand the lost past of the circus which is largely forgotten in this modern day world of arenas where the traditional process and roles of circus’s has been lost. This exhibit, and the whole circus museum in fact seemed to very popular with folks of the senior age. They remember the time when the circus was a much bigger deal then it is now. The mystery and grandeur it had. The circus was a part of their childhood, a big part it seems. As I watched these folks read and study the exhibits, pointing at things and smiling like kids, I wondered if they were re-living a lost part of the their own life that cannot be transferred to the current generation. I wondered if it brought back memories long forgotten.

The Midway Model
The Midway Model


In small towns in America, especially in Middle America; schools and businesses would close for a day or two when the circus came to town. The train would steam in and the parade would roll down the street where kids and families could see the animals and other wonders they might otherwise have never seen. It occurred to me as well as I looked around that some of mystery of the circus has also been taken away from generations after mine and maybe including mine because of the internet. In decades past the things seen at the circus might have been a once in a life time thing and now are easily found with a simple Google search. There is purity that I wish still existed with the circus and is lost.

As much of the model as i could get into a picture from up above
As much of the model as i could get into a picture from up above

The Dark Side

With all the good I saw and the interesting things I learned that day at the Ringling Circus Museum it was hard to ignore the darker parts of the circus which I, as an adult am now aware. In many days of circus past there was no minimum wage, workers’ rights or safety regulations. Animal rights were nonexistent save for a few owners who cared. The performing animals (lions, elephants, dogs etc.) were often forced to live in horrible conditions and treated much worse. When one died they were replaced. One plaque I read talked about the dogs used at the circus and explained they were often picked up off the streets or from pounds (by greasing some fingers with cash no doubt) then trained and turned into performing animals. Sadly they died often and were replaced every few stops. It’s horrible to think some child’s loved dog that escaped the yard and ended up in the pound might have been sold into circus life and never saw his boy again. IN recent years we all have seen news stories about circus animals being treated bad and going berserk. This history of animal welfare and fair treatment of employees wasn’t discussed at all in the museum. Why admit to your own sins I suppose at 25 bucks a pop.


Despite it all, the good bad and the ugly I still like the Ringling Museum and I think It offers an important history lesson about a life many of us will never know. It shows us a glimpse of the far past and even more recent past that might otherwise be forgotten. At one point a group of school kids came in on a field trip no doubt. They were about my niece’s age (8), maybe a bit older, but seemed genuinely interested and excited in what they were seeing and I thought that was pretty neat for them to be able to do that. So I gave them a pass on their loudness and running around. At least they were keeping the senior citizens who volunteer awake. This was just a gloss over of what we saw and experienced and there is so much more to see but who wants to read another one of my 5 page travel blogs lol.

Actual antique clown skates
Actual antique clown skates
Stacey looking at Circus history
Stacey looking at Circus history


Admission: $25.00 (includes the entire Ringling Museum Complex

Student Admission Price: $5.00 (which is what we paid. Never forget those valid college ID’s

Here is the link for the Ringling Circus Museum Website


Next blog: The Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling Museum of Art
Ringling Museum of Art

2 thoughts on “My Day at The Ringling Circus Museum

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