Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Tale of Two Museums: Baraboo Revisited; New Visions Needed ...

This was originally posted on February 16, 2010

Third in a Series: Discredited Baraboo Museum Places Circus Producing Above Artifacts Preservation

When viewed from an aerial graph, the buildings and grounds of the Circus World Museum look uniformly arranged. To walk the same turf on foot is another matter. In the late spring of 2007, when last I visited, I found a run-down sprawl of random exhibits, wagons and buildings of all styles and shapes, giving off the musty mystique of both a long-forgotten circus rusting away in the sun and a Section Eight playground. An inglorious mishmash.

Not inspiring. Was this were the show ended? Once upon a season, this was where the show began. Where the “World’s Greatest Shows” produced by the five Ringling brothers came each fall to rest and renew for another spring. This is where they built up their fame and fortune. A place funded by wealth then; a place forever close to bankruptcy now.

Time has not favored what is now called just Circus World, even though they still alternately use the original three-word title. Time demands a serious restatement of what it can and perhaps even should be, given its diverse — if hidden — holdings. Since its founding in the fifties, CWM has spent, as I see it, too much of its time and money in the relentless obsessive “restoration” of old circus wagons, some of it bogus. How many of them must you “restore” before you can turn your attention to other resources in your keeping, such as a quaint clutch of old carny wagons and a few rides shipped to the museum over forty years ago? Did that donation come with any legal strings attached, somebody should ask somebody.

Another question: Does this museum bear an ethical obligation to restore and exhibit what it willingly accepted when California carnival man Lloyd Hilligoss offered to send the artifacts east? Or is it simply okay to let them fade away into Baraboo oblivion, conveniently out of the eye of patrons? Well, not if you read the guidelines put out by the American Association of Museums (AAM), which revoked its accreditation of Circus World in the late 1990s.

Let’s make one thing clear: Lloyd Hilligoss could have sent the Thimble Theatre and all the other wagons to the junk hard. Could have turned them into fire wood, as show owners have been known to do. He must have admired their historical value (gaze upon the artwork and animated mechanisms of the fun house in this photo). So he took the time. in 1971, to offer them to Baraboo. And since the gesture was obviously made for people like me, I feel compelled to write in his defense.

Can you feel my emerging drift?

This piece of real estate was not willed by the brothers to anybody for any particular purpose, and so, unlike what is happening down in Sarasota where bureaucratic interlopers labor morning noon and night to reconfigure an art museum into an art-circus combo, in Baraboo, the powers that be can do whatever they please; they could even, I think, sell the property and be done with it. Rumors suggest even this bleak scenario has been periodically considered.

The museum that Chappie Fox built, and the formidable library that Robert L. Parkinson stocked and cataloged (it alone earning respect from the AAM), has for years been handicapped by diminishing crowds, by a loss of crucial funding from Schlitz Brewery, and by vacillating leadership extending clear up to the Wisconsin Historical Society that owns and controls the precarious operation. Recently, the board laid off half of Circus World’s staff of eight, including thoroughly professional archivist Erin Foley, who had kept a world-respected research library open and in active responsive operation. Also to her formidable credit, Foley had taken measures to open the Ringling-Barnum Archives, a rich source of Ringling circus documentation that had for too many years remained in custodial limbo. At last, this trove of history can be mined by researchers and the public at large.

A staff member who runs a summer time circus, itself hardly an authentic museum exhibit at all, remains on the payroll.

Today, you will find indecision and sporadic neglect everywhere. Compare the first-rate quarters accorded restored circus wagons inside two modern buildings to a shabby off-site shelter (roof only, if I recall correctly) under which a number of carnival wagons rot away. Walk the exciting Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall, a marvel of captivating wall and display case know-how, and then wander out through some of the older Ringling brothers brick barns, where photos and posters and text materials posted are fraying at the edges; that’s how I found them in 2007, prompting me to ask Erin Foley about certain historical inaccuracies contained therein. Explained, she, library staffers can “comment” on historical content — only. They have no control over what goes up for display. How oddly counterproductive and totally irresponsible for a “museum.” No wonder its AAM accreditation was revoked. Among a number of suspected reasons driving the AAM’s dismay, there is the nagging issue of whether or not many of the so-called “restored” wagons are in fact real artifacts. Numerous replacements of their original materials and parts have rendered a number of them virtual recreations. A lot of them contain no more, if that, than 25% of the original wood and metal.

Indeed, the Great Milwaukee Circus Parades of the past, Fox’s dazzling dream come true, put a moving spectacle of artifacts at grave risk (inordinate wear and tear), while at the same time deceptively pushing total recreations as authentic. This illusion did not please the auditors from the AAM, who will refute any attempt to pass off a recreation as the real item, as well they should.

CWM was then, and it still might be now, a sad reflection of a history of administrative expediency and neglect — and extra curricular showbiz ambitions. The Ringling circus museum in Florida has mover and shaker Deborah Walk and her funding sugar daddy Howard Tibbals. Circus World in Baraboo has Wisconsin politician Stephen Freese, latest in a series of executive directors to hold its precarious reigns. So far, his modest to moderate fund-raising efforts have at least kept the creditors at bay, but he has just shrunk museum hours down to only three summer months a year, for official word is that, without the circus it presents during this period, the six- to seven-hundred people it draws on the average day would melt away. During the winter months CWM was drawing less than 10 customers a day. Sometimes one or two. Did I not suggest that a new vision is in order?

How long before Freese, too, uplifts off to another post, or runs for another office, throwing a hundred question marks once more into limbo?

About what it might be — how about the American Outdoor Amusement Museum? There are, to my sketchy knowledge, virtually no carnival museums in the United States; one is being planned in Canada. The Foley and Burk wagons, along with a few other rides said to be stored somewhere on the premises, could form the nucleus for a historical carnival midway display. The gem of the bunch is certainly the old time Thimble Theatre fun house (a.k.a.: Fun on the Farm). For starters, there are thousands of potential customers to draw from who frequent the amusement park up the road at The Dells. Even a hundred of them a day would expand the paltry six- or seven-hundred souls who pass through CWM turnstiles on the average summer day to watch the circus show.

How I’d love to see an old fashion 10-in-1, historically accurate, sans the crippling constrains of PC paranoia.

And if not, CWM surely bears an ethical obligation to offer their carnival holdings to a carnival museum willing and ready to preserve and display them. Among the elements of acceptable “Collections Stewardship” specified by the American Association of Museums, there is this: “The museum provides public access to its collections while ensuring their preservation.” On this count alone, CWM’s consistent refusal to exhibit its carnival artifacts amounts to a gross dereliction of duties. No wonder they lack accreditation.

But wait for the circus! That’s this summer. That’s when the charade continues. Yes, let the librarian go; why do we need her? We are running a circus, not a museum.

New vision: Why not combine Baraboo’s attractions into a one-tour ticket: include the Al Ringling Opera House, claimed to be the first movie palace in America for a city of this size. Stage a nightly vaudeville show on its boards recreating what the Ringling Brothers gave the public during their first years in show business. Move the recently arrived International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center down to Water Street where it rightfully belongs, for heaven sakes! Baraboo also contains, heck, Baraboo itself, a sleepy town of old-world enchantment.

Tis a pity that Circus World has been so woefully mismanaged. Perhaps it needs simply to be mismanaged into something a lot more colorful and exciting, diversified and compelling. They insist they need a circus show to pull in a crowd? Okay, then give them one hell of a circus -- songs and jokes, bawdy pratfalls and freaks, old time rides like The Whip, spooky fun house walk throughs, a goat named Billy Rainbow (the brothers' first animal); a snake charmer named Louise Ringling — all of it authentically historical.

That’s all.



ryan said...

the only hope that carnival equipment has is that when the gibtown museum opens in a few year, that they will be able to get there hands on some of the stuff. They already have some wagons and equipment, and maintain it all in excellent shape.

Showbiz David said...

Were I a man of means, I would go to family court on behalf of my beloved thimble theatre and seek custodial rights to protect her from further neglect and harm in baraboo. I would then take all means to have her airlifted out of the town and into a proper facility, to be treated for trauma and physical abuse. Too long has she withered away, waiting for her turn to be "restored" while, one after another, yet another orphan circus wagon is ushered to the front of the line. A preciously complex artifact of carnival fun house history, circa 1920, now stands, sinking in the mud, on museum death row. This is a shame!

Anonymous said...


As the newley minted director of the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, I aggree that the beauty of the Al Ringling Theater, the massive scope of the Circus World collection and our unique and specific clown related artifacts and history make Baraboo a destination that should draw historians, researchers and the general public.

Museums can only draw if their contents are creatively presented and engage their audience. Our slice of the museum pie is being crafted to include many community outreach programs that will allow us, as a partner with the Baraboo community, to give back and enrich, entertain and educate, those who might not be have the chance to experience the wonder and magic that clowns and laughter can bring.

We have already forged some great partnerships with local business leaders, city government, youth groups, senior centers, circus fans, professional circus's and clown groups.

Donations have been coming in, grants have been applied for, and been approved, a five year business plan is being prepared and much good will is being created between the Clown Hall of Fame and professional clowns and performers. It's hard work, but we feel we owe it to the legacy of clowns and the craft itself to pursue our mission and feel Baraboo, WI is the perfect place to call home. It is our hope that we can compliment the circus heritage that defines this community.

-Greg DeSanto

Showbiz David said...

Greg, Congratulations on your appointment, and I wish you much luck!

Rebecca Ostroff said...

the wagons 63, 39, 10 etc were used as dressing rooms when CWM used a tent. I was told they were not "real historical wagons" and it was ok that we decoupaged the dickens out of them. The summer of 2003 we collaged and decoupaged with a frenzy inspired by he who shall remain anonymous.
I suppose they are now housing some history on the inside

John Herriott said...

It seems museums, fraternal organizations, the art of costuming, sawdust, spangles and dreams are not in "vogue" at this time. I see multimillion stage sets of lighting color etc. and the performers and muscians come out in torn bluejeans dirty looking T shirsts no hair styling boys and girls look like they just crawled out of bed. The Ent. industry has brainwashed the public to be suire. No expensive bands just geetar singers have no voice training and in fact do not even know how to hold a Mike. They try nto eat on it. This is all the Rock and Country that seems to have maximized the Ent. industry. They have no allegiance to those before them.[Roy Rogers, Buck Owens,would be laughed off the stage.]The beautiful circus girl in exquisite wardrobe presentation for her act is passe. The men in tux or full dress all in the past. I see on Dancing with the stars that the Master of ceremonies is in a regular suit, no Tux. Imagine Frank, Dean, Sammy, Jessel like that. And the band leader and muscisians all in street clothes. The set is beautiful and most of the dancers are in nice wardrobe [not all]so some director is not up to professional requirements for that type of presentation. I am glad to be old enough to remember because I fear any nostalgia craze is not foreseeable. Well enough rambling but I do feel CWM carries on pretty well but unfortunately their key people never really had any circus experience. too bad but there aren't any old timers left.