Updated: April 21st, 2018
How creepy is the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum? In a word? VERY. [caps mandatory]
In photos? Well, here ya go…
The fact that a circus museum is creepy may come as a surprise to you–if you’re a cyborg, which you probably aren’t since I have spam detectors for that sorta thing. I think everyone to some degree has a fear of clowns. I don’t, particularly. Spiders? Yes. Being sucked out of the car on the highway if I don’t lock the door? Of course. My arm never regaining feeling after going numb from sleeping on it? Abso-f*cking-lutely. “I’m gonna have to amputate this time FOR SURE!”
But that doesn’t mean being mostly alone in a circus museum won’t give you the same feeling as hanging your leg off the side of the bed at night. The masks and oversized paper mâché heads, the posters of bearded women and men with three legs, the scenes of bumbling clowns on a continuous video loop, the dark corners, and most of all the fact that EVERYTHING IS LOOKING AT YOU!
I don’t remember at what point the circus became “creepy.” I remember popcorn, glitter covered souvenirs, and I vaguely remember riding an elephant at some point? I may be making that up. I remember how crappy the arena looked when it was over and the lights came back on–just trash, stained ceiling tiles, sad elephants (I had seen Dumbo numerous times at this point in my life), and absolutely no magic whatsoever. Regardless, I certainly don’t remember thinking any of it was weird. Or did I simply lack the verbal comprehension to express my feelings of, “What the !@#$ is going on here?” Then again, that was around the time this photo was taken:
Is the fear of the circus something we don’t develop until adulthood? When we realize just how strange it is that grownups get off on wearing ruffles and clown makeup and acting foolish merely to entertain children that aren’t even their’s? This freaks me out in ways I can’t explain. But so do children in general so there’s that. This is on the same level as adults who collect dolls, people who make eye contact with you through the bathroom stall, and people who care a little too much about their business cards. Somethin’ just ain’t right.*
But maybe I just don’t get it.
*EXCEPTION: If you are clowning at a children’s hospital and/or pediatric cancer center, you are exempt from all clown-related ridicule. Also, you are awesome and the world needs more people like you. It’s just too bad you’ll never procreate. I’M KIDDINGGGGGG.
HOW DID I END UP AT A CIRCUS MUSEUM?
How did I even come to be at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum? Well, it was an accident for the most part. Like that time I fell down some stairs and the stem of a wine glass went through my hand. I was simply headed for the kitchen but ended up in the emergency room watching Iron Man on my hand doctor’s cell phone while he, through me, demonstrated to the interns how ligaments work. You’re welcome, modern medicine. Also, MAN can a hand bleed…
So you see, sometimes you’re headed somewhere perfectly nonthreatening but end up behind a curtain having little bits of your hand skin cut off.
Similar to this is the story of how I ended up at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum. (Fewer stitches, same degree of questioning life choices.) The Ringling Brothers Circus Museum (and Barnum & Bailey) is part of “The Ringling,” a much larger seaside complex encompassing an art museum and sculpture garden, a rose garden, the family’s Venetian-style mansion, and endless natural beauty. I had heard about The Ringling previously, mostly from my friend Amanda whose opinion I trust completely since we share the same appreciation for Renaissance art, Latin dancing, and Vigo Mortensen as a sex symbol.
As many times as she has visited The Ringling, Amanda has never entered the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum. That should’ve been my first clue that shit was about to get weird.
I intended to spend the day strolling the property and getting acquainted with my new camera taking pictures of flowers and trees and of two lizards humping, completely forgetting that the Ringling family also had a little something to do with The Greatest Show on Earth Even Though We Haven’t a Vague Idea What the Earth Looks Like. (⇠ You’ll see.) Admission to the circus museum is included in the ticket price and it’s the first stop after entering so I promptly began my relaxing day in the Florida sun in the middle of some people’s worst Hell dreams.
I should stress that I didn’t go into this adventure with the assumption that it would, in fact, be creepy. I like to give everything a fair shot–the movie Twilight, at-home leg waxing, New Jersey–but I pictured a formal, more mature presentation of circus history. This is, after all, an attraction for lovers of fine art, Italian architecture, and rose gardens for love of geriatrics! I was the youngest person in the ticket line by 20 years. Instead, it’s obvious they are trying to make you feel like you’re “in the circus” here which makes about as much sense as Six Flags using an old man to lure children to its theme parks. I’m an adult; give it to me straight. My whiskey, that is. But it’s like, is the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum for adults? Is it for kids? They have all the history and information that an adult would appreciate but presented as though children are their target. Like every time Donald Trump opens his piehole or every scene in the movie Shrek. What the heck is going on here? Make up your minds!
The Ringling Brothers Circus Museum is actually two parts: The Tibbals Learning Center based around a gigantic miniature circus (oxymoron, anyone?), information on circus history with some original artifacts, vintage advertisements, clothing displays, a lot of dark corners, and a room dedicated to “putting you in the circus” with a mock tightrope, some other things to stand on, and some life size faux animals to stand next to. The creep factor in this dimly lit room far outweighs its potential for entertainment. It’s like they don’t even want children to like the circus.
Next door is the actual Ringling Brothers Circus Museum–a large, dark, mostly empty warehouse displaying original train cars, animal cages, tents, and some other stuff that was just a blur to me as I booked it the hell out of there. There was also a small gift shop–the only time the whole day I saw actual, real life children. Moral of the story: Your kids don’t care. Take them straight to the toy store and call it a day.
TIBBALS LEARNING CENTER
Howard Tibbals is a man known for… well, I couldn’t find anything he’s known for other than building this:
…a supposed million-piece miniature circus. He started building it in 1943 and here it is today, weirding out visitors of all ages. I guess everyone’s gotta have their hobbies. Mine are blogging and hiding from people I don’t want to talk to. For some, it’s mastering stunted emotional development well into late adulthood. But the reason this part of the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum is named for him might have a little more to do with the $10.5 million he donated to the “cause,” a term I use extremely loosely. Where he got that money, I don’t know but I’m sure it had little (heh) to do with building miniature circuses. Howard Tibbals = a lil bit creepy.
Side note: Is anyone going to mention that gaping hole outside the tent at the bottom right? What aspect of the circus is that exactly? Please leave your conjecture below.
The Tibbals Learning Center is what I actually thought was the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum when I entered. It was only after I exited the building and looked at my map that I realized I had not yet visited the “circus museum.” “You mean… th-th-there’s more?” They should really consider rewording the whole shebang.
RINGLING BROTHERS CIRCUS MUSEUM
The Ringling Brothers Circus Museum is something else entirely (only not really). The Circus Museum is a large, dark warehouse. Much darker than in these photos improved by the grace of increased exposure. The door from the outside looks like the side door to a movie theater and not at all like a museum entrance. (I was confused for the majority of the day.) It houses original train cars and equipment from the circus’s early days when the “circus coming to town” was a grand event and not the caravan of dingy semi-trucks and diesel fumes that it is today.
In the back are paintings of circus freaks of all levels of creepiness, some seemingly random stuff shoved into some dark corners, and dead silence. I guess if I had to choose between silence and foreboding, slowed down circus music I’d choose silence but I was ALL ALONE. Was this stuff supposed to make sense? Did I miss an explanatory brochure at the front? Am I afraid of the dark? Yes, damn it. It’s a warehouse of cages! I’ve seen Criminal Minds; I know what happens next.
Clearly I feel about the circus the same way most people feel about going to the doctor. Specifically the chiropractor since I just don’t quite get it and there’s the lurking feeling someone is going to come and snap my neck from behind. I think the concept got lost on me decades ago. The whole thing creeps me out and I don’t agree with Ringling/Barnum & Bailey’s (ab)use of animals. I can’t even say I fully agree with their recent decision to retire all touring circus elephants (which they stated was purely for economic reasons and had nothing to do with ethics or basic human decency). They plan to use these retired elephants for scientific research and have no plans in ending the use of the rest in a long list of performing animals. Bravo, dirtbags. Specifically you, Ringling CEO Kenneth Feld. With every sarcastic, shit-stained sentence that oozes out of your mouth humanity sinks deeper and deeper into an inescapable hell. Try being a compassionate human being just once.
Update: As of May 21st, 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus ceases to exist.
Not to mention this “museum” doesn’t seem to know it’s place. It’s clearly trying to be everything to everyone and that just doesn’t work. A lesson I think we all learned when Paris Hilton put out a hip-hop album. Is this museum for adults? For kids? Adults that are so adult they actually think they’re kids? Why are the two buildings separate when really they’re the same thing? Why is this not explained at some point? Who in the hell signed Paris Hilton to a music contract?
It’s also quite clear the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum is a greatly biased and misleading attraction. When I visit a museum, I want to see stone-cold facts and get all of the information. I don’t want to see so obviously how all controversy surrounding your organization has been swept under the rug. I don’t want to see a bunch of smiling faces saying to me, “What protests? What petitions? What scandals? I don’t know what you’re talking about! Everything is fantastic! Top-notch! Here, have some cotton candy little girl.” IT’S CREEPY WHEN YOU DO THINGS LIKE THAT.
Now on the other hand, Cirque de Soleil I completely understand and appreciate. Showcasing astounding and, dare I sound cliché, mind-blowing human talent should never cease. The stuff those performers can do? Actual magic. Now give me that cotton candy goddamnit.
As far away as I prefer to stay from the circus, I must admit I have played a small yet highly unqualified role in its perpetuation. To give you a preview of my upcoming, one-woman circus titled, “I Could’ve Died But Didn’t,” here are some videos of me KILLING IT on the flying trapeze:
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