Historic Sites Making Their Holdings More Accessible
Circus historians and fans can take heart in what is happening at the Circus World Museum these days under the leadership of Steve Freese. First of all the financial picture had brighten considerably. At its lowest point in 2007, Circus World Museum was on the verge of collapse when Freese took over. Its attendance had been steadily dropping by 15 % a year, down to of just 46,000 visitors a year. Worst of all it was $1.2 million in debt. And then along came the flood in 2008.
Circus World Museum has come a long way since those dark days. The first think Freese said he felt he had to attack was the physical deterioration of the physical facility. It looked shabby and run-down from neglect, the result of there being no money to keep up appearances. It had the image of a derelict attraction that had seen better days. So a major sprucing up campaign was instituted.
As a result of the efforts of the entire staff, by 2011 attendance was up to 65,000, and the debt has been reduced to a mere $100,000. Part of that miraculous turn around was thanks to the Milwaukee Great Circus Parade two years ago. The money earned from the parade paid off what was owed on the line of credit. Next Freese presented the film company with a comprehensive plan of what they could offer them by way of providing authentic atmosphere for the movie’s sets. Leasing the wagons to the film company helped ease the cash flow, which is probably the only good thing to come out of that film. Initially the film was going to be shot in Wisconsin , but when the state law makers withdrew the tax waivers for film companies, and the project was moved to a location in California.
Since the museum now belongs to the state of Wisconsin there are certain monetary advantages it can apply to maintenance and operating costs. The property is now valued at $64million.
Projects that are underway or in the planning stages include restoring the Ringling office house. It will be home to an exhibit of the business side of running a circus. The Ringlings’ original portable office desk is preserved among the artifacts in the library’s collection.
Renovation of the train shed, the oldest such structure in the United States, remained stalled for various reasons, only some of which are financial.
The KohlerFoundation has provided the funding for the purchase of three new wagons.
Of significant importance to researchers is the news that the Library and Research Center has won a grant to digitize the entire collection, and individual donors chipped in to buy a scanner that can accommodate large scale objects such as oversized lithos. That means historians will be able to access a great deal of material without making the trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Historians can now stay at home and take advantage of the library’s holdings, but the future of Circus World Museum as an entire entity depends on continuing to raise attendance. Most of the operating budget is financed by ticket sales. And so Freese continues to talk about making Baraboo a destination instead a side trip off the beaten path to the Dells. That will take the cooperation of the entire town. “But,” Freese says with more than a tinge of regret and disappointment, “they seem to want to run away from their circus heritage. We have got to turn that around.”
In line with that, the town square in the middle of the village is also home to the newly invigorated Clown Hall of Fame, where director Greg DeSantos has a wonderful and fascinating collection of displays of the great clowns of the world, including Barry Lubin and Otto Griebling. A few steps down the street is the Al Ringling Theatre. Built in 1915, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. a jewe-l box well worth visiting. It contains the renovated Mighty Barton theatre organ which hadbeen originally installed in 1928.
Over at the Library and Research Center archivist Peter Shrake has begun to put the collection in order to a degree it has not seen in many years. The online catalogue is accessible by going to the CWM website: www.circusworldmuseum.com, where you can search the collection.
Those attending the recent Circus Historical Society conference also heard from Matt Wittman who gave attendees a preview of the kinds of things that will be on display in the exhibition “Circus and the City, 1793-2010.” That’s New York City, by the way, in case anyone had any doubts. It is being sponsored by the Graduate Center of Bard College, whose graduate center is located in upper Manhattan. The show, which aims to demonstrate the city’s connection to the circus, runs from Sept. 21, 2012 thru Feb. 13, 2013, at 86th St. in New York City.
“Circus and the City” will be an exhibition of artifacts from the circus’ connection to New York City during the time period noted above. Prints and artifacts are coming from every circus museum and collection in the country. A book will be published in conjunction with the show.
Over at the Milner Library at Illinois State University, one can access online a very extensive photo collection of Sverre Braathen, whose color slides document the performers and performances of the Ringling Barnum & Bailey Circus from the 1930’3 to mid 1950. Go to http://tempest.lib.ilstu.edu.braathen.php. to view this amazing collection.
The Ringling’s museum’s collection of lithos is also online at www.Ringling.org