Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Circus World Museum Board Member Responds to My Post, "New Visions Needed"

Please Note: My posting about Circus World Museum evidently hurt some feelings in Baraboo. I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jonathan Lipp, a CWM board member, although he made clear that he was not writing me in his capacity as a member of the board but as an individual. I asked him for permission to reprint his message in its entirety, allowing for no editing. He granted permission, so here it follows:


Please take my comments as a fellow who loves circus and is doing all I can to support a place I love. I only wish there were more of us who could show support, My position is to find solutions and support those who care enough to keep an important part of our history alive.

My name is Jonathan Lipp, I serve on the Board of Circus World, but am writing as an individual, not speaking for the board. I love Circus World and have spent a lot of my own volunteer time and cash to support the museum, my wife and I hold an annual fundraiser to support the museum.

That said, in my view, the real problem the museum has, is support. In its heyday the museum had a staff of over 30 full time people. Most of the funding came from private individuals with a love for circus. I am sure that when they were collecting, their intention was to restore and display everything they could, they refused no contributions of artifacts. Many of those supporters are now gone, their children do not have the attachment to the circus and have found other interests and there are less donations.

The museum is owned by the State of Wisconsin Historical Society, but is run by our independent foundation. Donations over the years have dwindled and blaming a succession of current and previous staff is pointless. I work with numerous non-profit foundations and they are all having fund raising problems, Circus World is no exception. The focus on wagons goes back to the founders and is nothing new, it is a Circus Museum and not a carnival museum. Most of the restorations in recent years have been funded by individual contributors who have directed their funds to specific projects. If anyone out there wants to pay for other specific restorations, please do. I am sure that if there is someone who has the means to restore carnival equipment and to properly display it, the museum would be glad to discuss projects like that. Point is, that there is very little money and maintaining current equipment and exhibits is the most that can be done now. Priorities include keeping the Parkinson Library open, which we are doing. Criticizing the current staff is more than cruel, these people work 60 to 80 hour weeks and are doing the best they can with very limited resources.

The accreditation you talk about was discussed a number of years ago, we just did not have the money to do it. The current staff has the most diverse collection of experience to keep the museum operational, cuts are hard to do, but when there is only enough money for a few people, difficult decisions must be made. I would prefer to keep the museum open when people want to visit it. If we had to close it, it would revert to the owners, the State of Wisconsin, which has cut funding to their own Historical Society, so it is questionable if the Society would be able to keep it open at all, since the cost of State employees are higher than the foundations.

One of the great debates in the museum business is whether to display artifacts as found or to use them in an active way that shows them in a more realistic context, like a parade. I understand the debate and both sides have merit. For my preference, I would rather see a museum not as a mausoleum of the past but as a vibrant and active engaging place that is the essence of the word "museum". The essence is "muse" as in inspiring thought and understanding, parades and performances do just that, without those I am sure that the thousands who visit the museum would be hundreds. We don't have the millions that the State of Florida has invested in their museums, I wish we did.

If it were not for Steve Freese's experience in government and fund-raising I know that we may have had to shutter Circus World 2 years ago. The Circus Parade last year not only provided funding for last years operations but paid for maintenance on many wagons to make them parade-able. As to the authenticity of the wagons, yes some have more new wood than old. The condition that many of them were in when rescued was abysmal, many had less than 20% of the original wood left. Photographs and research allowed the workers to restore the wagons to a semblance of what they were at one point in time. As you know, the wagons went though many owners and many different paint jobs, some point in time had to be picked. Back to the point, do we want the "muse" to be what the circus was or what remains, which is more educational? Collectors almost never restore or even clean artifacts, museums (not collections) try to show what was, in context, it is just a choice, neither good or bad. The museum needs volunteers and money, carping accomplishes nothing.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...


As someone who worked at the museum during Jonathan's time as a board member, I can attest that he and his lovely wife Susan are truly two of the most caring and thoughtful supporters of CWM and Baraboo.

He is someone who puts his money where his mouth is and follows up on details. The museum is very lucky to have the Lipps in their corner during this difficult time.

-Greg DeSanto