Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Ringling Museum to open new Greatest Show on Earth Gallery

Interactive and immersive exhibits cover Feld Entertainment's ownership of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The entrance to the new Greatest Show on Earth Gallery at The Ringling Museum.
The entrance to the new Greatest Show on Earth Gallery at The Ringling Museum.
Courtesy image
  • Arts + Culture
  • Share

It was cloudy on a recent Thursday morning in Sarasota. Instead of heading to the beach, some families swarmed the miniature circus exhibit at The Ringling Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center.

Encompassing more than 42,000 pieces and 3,800 square feet, the Howard Bros. Circus Model is enclosed in Plexiglass. It was created by philanthropist and circus lover Howard Tibbals. The exhibit is reminiscent of battle scene models with miniature soldiers, but the war being waged here is to bring the circus to town.

Meanwhile, on the second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center, installers were putting the finishing touches on a new gallery called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The second floor has long been used to display circus memorabilia, but about two years ago, it was closed for an overhaul.

On April 6, it will reopen with new, interactive exhibits that cover the years of Feld Entertainment’s ownership of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feld, based in Palmetto, acquired Ringling Bros. in 1967.

The installations on the renovated second floor represent “the circus most people remember,” says Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Tibbals Curator of Circus at The Ringling. “The people who remember the earlier era, on the first floor, are aging out.”

Jennifer Lemmer Posey is Tibbals Curator of Circus at the John and Mable Ringing Museum of Art.
Photo by Monica Roman Gagnier

“This exhibit will serve as a dynamic testament to the vitality and innovation of modern circus,” said Ringling Executive Director Steven High in a statement. “We are thrilled to finally have permanent gallery space dedicated to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus era that many visitors remember.” 

In case you don’t know, John Ringling, one of seven brothers involved in the Ringling Bros. Circus, made Sarasota its winter home in 1927. Tourists could watch rehearsals and see live animals at the circus winter quarters. 

Sarasota also became home to circus performers such as the Wallendas, the Concellos and the famous clown Emmett Kelly, who became a hero during a 1944 circus fire in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that killed 167 people.

John Ringling was once one of the richest men in the world, but when he died in 1936 of pneumonia, he was almost penniless. His beloved and influential first wife, Mable, died before him in 1929. But as part of his estate planning, he left his mansion and art collection to the people of the state of Florida, who can visit The Ringling for free each Monday. Regular pricing applies to the Circus Museum and the Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John”) on Mondays.

In a town where big numbers are bandied about for new cultural centers and buildings — $51.6 million for the newly opened Phase I of Selby Gardens $92 million master plan, for instance — the obvious question about the new Greatest Show on Earth Gallery at The Ringling is: How much did it cost? 

Lemmer Posey, who is nicknamed the “Queen of Circus History,” gently shakes her head when asked for the dollar-figure of the renovation. She explains that, because The Ringling is under the stewardship of Florida State University, it is customary not to reveal such numbers. 

OK, those who are really interested can make a public records request. Florida is well-known for the transparency of its public records, so the budget for the gallery upgrade has got to be in a document somewhere.

In the meantime, let’s talk about what’s new at the Tibbals Learning Center. Thanks to Muhammad Ali and the internet, the acronym “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time) has practically become a household word. At The Ringling, the same thing goes for “GSOE” (Greatest Show on Earth). 

After you see it in print dozens of times, it registers in your brain. You’ll have to ask the folks at the museum how to pronounce it.

The first thing to know about the GSOE Gallery is that these are exhibits for the 21st century that have been about four years in the making, possibly more if you account for time lost during Covid closings. The second thing is that they were created with the input and help of Feld Entertainment.

“As Feld Entertainment, Inc., relaunches the re-imagined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the history contained within the museum’s newest gallery is more relevant than ever,” said Lemmer Posey in a statement. “It is exciting to celebrate the talents that defined the first 50 years of The Feld Family’s leadership of The Greatest Show On Earth as a new era begins.”

When you see the displays in the GSOE Gallery with the digital directory of circus performers, your first instinct may be to touch the screen. But that would be the wrong move. 

Although The Ringling was early in adopting touchscreens for its exhibits, Lemmer Posey and others involved in the planning of the new gallery opted for motion-sensor technology for the GSOE. 

A motion sensor display in The Ringling's new Greatest Show on Earth Gallery.
Courtesy image

“You have to remember that we were working on this during Covid and there was a lot of concern about touching things so we decided on motion sensors,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s also considered the leading edge in museum exhibits.”

So when you walk up to the kiosk and want to find the Flying Tabares, a famous trapeze family that has performed for generations and whose younger members recently appeared at Circus Sarasota, move your hand back and forth. Voila! You can see images and videos of the Tabares doing their thing in mid-air.

Lemmer Posey explains that after the Felds took over Ringling Bros., the circus began performing in existing arenas instead of putting up a big top. This shift coincided with holding more performances in urban areas and the addition of diverse performers to the lineup. 

These include the King Charles Troupe, a cross between circus unicyclists and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, and the first African-American ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson. A veteran of the Harlem Boys Choir, Iverson joined Ringling Bros. as ringmaster at age 22 in 1998 and stayed in the job for two decades.

By far the most impressive exhibit in the GSOE Gallery is called “The Show.” The roughly eight-minute immersive experience combines video, lighting and original circus wardrobe to showcase acts popular during the first 50 years of the Feld Family’s ownership of the circus.

As in the past, there is an alcove on the second floor where you can look down on the Howard Brothers Circus Model. Go there after leaving “The Show” to get a sense of just how far the circus has traveled. 

Juvenal, the poet in ancient Rome, gets credit for coining the phrase, “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” History has demonstrated that isn’t always the case, but circuses and the preeminent museum that preserves its legacy keep getting better and better.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

Latest News