Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Circus World Museum's Hidden Ancient Treasure: The Ringling-Barnum Circus Archives, Forever a Mystery?
In My Opinion
At the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, a goldmine of Ringling documentation called “The Ringling-Barnum Circus Archives” encompass a formidable space at the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center and is technically off limits to researches and interested parties, although special access is allowed on an individual basis. These papers are still owned by the Feld Organization. A long-stated theory is that the Felds fear the vague possibility of something in the heap embarrassing them. That is highly unlikely.
What on earth might they contain that would be damaging to the Feld family?
Recently reinstated archivist Erin Foley, herself an even-handed professional with a Yale degree, labors in the middle of a petty political mess that has been tolerated far too long, in my opinion, by spineless bureaucrats. She appears to be doing her level best to bring about a clear legal transfer of ownership to CWM. But she does not have the power herself to set policy. That would be up to Circus World’s latest executive director, former Wisconsin state representative and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Stephen Freese. And how likely is Freese to force the issue? I wouldn’t bet the museum on it. His job is to raise money, and if that means sacrificing the collection to the collection plate, that’s what will likely happen. What is needed is a director with the resolve to deliver an ultimatum to Feld Central.
When I was researching my book Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus back in the late ‘80s (repeat: late ‘80s), I was encouraged by one of the “readers” (engaged by my publisher to critique my manuscript) to hold off on publication until I could view the Ringling-Barnum Archives, the point and promise being that they contained letters and notes by and about North that would enhance my work. Wrote the reader in June, 1990, “Unfortunately, all correspondence to or from the Norths and Concello will be restricted as long as Henry North and Arthur Concello are alive.” Excuse me, museum, but both Norths and Concello are now dead, and have been for some years.
Had I waited, my book might never have been published. And when were these archives placed on loan to the Circus World Museum? In 1971.
Thirty fives years later, they are still officially off limits.
For years, a select circle of the good old boys (the “reader” quoted above, among them) could lick their chops over special off-hours access to the archives for their personal enjoyment. What motivation did any of them have to share the secret nuggets with others? Greg Parkinson, who for a time, managed the museum, appeared to have been more enamored of advancing some sort of a Ringling career than preserving the integrity of the collection and displays. (The otherwise wonderful Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall pushes chronic Feld fictions onto the public — and if you view the Merle Evans exhibit in one of the older buildings, you will get the impression that he is still directing the Ringling Circus band.) Too many fan-directors in Baraboo seem to have valued Feld appointments over a Baraboo desk job. Greg’s father, Robert L., declined to even answer a few general questions I sent him in 1990 – example, do the archives really contain a significant number of letters written by John Ringling North? In reply, tersely he answered, “They remain secured and restricted.”
Here — and let me make this clear to everyone, I am speaking for myself — is what I believe those archives actually mean to Kenneth Feld. He is what we call in California a “control freak.” As long as he owns the Ringling Circus, I doubt he will ever hand over the archives to Baraboo. Not because he has any reason to fear what they contain but because as long as he has something the museum desperately wants, that gives him tremendous leverage in exerting control (both direct and subliminal) over its staff. And he has pushed his weight around on occasion. Let go of the Archives and his control is instantly gone.
Only Circus World itself can force the issue. Were I in the driver’s seat, I would call Kenneth Feld and say, “As of next Monday morning at ten, your collection is open to the public. If you don’t like it, send over your u-hauls to pick it up and haul it away. As long as it is closed, it is of no value to us or anybody. And, furthermore, Mr. Feld, we are NOT your private warehouse. We are NOT your concessions back-stock storage department. We are a MUSEUM that is highly respected around the world, and NOT a press arm of Feld Entertainment.
If Freese & Foley can bring this off, however they approach the Felds, I will be the first to eat my words and offer them Kudos.
Absurd? Ridiculous? That and more. When people in power sell their souls for more power, these things happen. Even in Baraboo. Time for action at Ringlingville. Time to write letters to Freese, and time to thank Foley for what she is trying to bring off. I know of one person, long an avid volunteer at the museum but still denied access, whose frustration calls to mind the phrase “mad as **** and I won’t take it anymore!”.
I am totally in her camp. In wimpspeak, I would rather not either.