A new exhibition at the Ringling celebrates an era of American cultural history. The exhibition opens exactly two days before that era will come to an end.
It’s titled “Amazing Acts of the Greatest Show on Earth,” and it looks at the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus through circus posters dating back nearly 150 years.
It opens May 19, just a couple of days before the last scheduled performance of the world’s most famous circus.
“It is really our first chance to respond to the the closing of the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus,” said Jennifer Lemmer Posey. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate the Greatest Show on Earth.”
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Posey is the associate curator of the Ringling Circus Museum and the curator of the new exhibition. (The Ringling is not connected to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.)
The museum has a collection of more than 8,000 circus posters. Posey selected 32 for this exhibition.
The oldest posters in the exhibition date to 1877, only a few years after the Ringling Brothers Circus started billing itself as the “Greatest Show on Earth.” The most recent come from the 21st century.
“Basically, my goal was to present a sweeping history of the circus,” Posey said.
For the purposes of the exhibition, she divided the history of the Greatest Show on Earth into the periods of about a half-century each. The first is the early years, dating to before Ringling Bros. purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus. For about 10 years after the purchase, the two circuses toured the country separately. They finally merged in 1919.
Basically, my goal was to present a sweeping history of the circus.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey
The second period starts with that merger and takes visitors up to 1967, the beginning of what Posey calls the “Feld era,” when Feld Entertainment, which is now based in Palmetto, acquired the circus.
The artwork on many of the posters is stunning, Posey said, and it’s remarkable that some of the older posters have survived so long in excellent condition.
“These were not meant to last,” she said. “They were meant to be ephemeral. They were supposed to be pasted on a wall and then torn down.”
The pictorial trip through Ringling Bros. history reveals changes in the circus itself, Posey said. In the early years, the circus was very heavy on equestrian acts. Later posters tout such stars as Emmett Kelley and Lou Jacobs, but emphasize the wide variety of acts in each year’s circus. In the Feld era, posters tended to focus on one superstar performer, such as Bello Nock or Gunther Gebel-Williams.
These were not meant to last. They were meant to be ephemeral. They were supposed to be pasted on a wall and then torn down.
Jennifer Lemmer Posey
But they also reveal broader cultural changes, from the style of the artwork to the printing techniques to the content of the posters.
“The early posters focused on information, because that’s what people wanted,” Posey said. “There are a lot of words. People were walking and they’d stop to read the posters. The world was just slower. Later on the posters had to grab you with the visual elements.”
Details: May 19-Sept. 11, Tibbals Learning Center at the Ringling Circus Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. $25 general admission (includes the Museum of Art, special exhibitions, Circus Museum and bayfront gardens); 65 and older $23; ages 6-17 $5; free admission for children age 5 and younger accompanied by an adult museum member. 941-358-3180, ringling.org.