Florida State University’s The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art remembers philanthropist, Howard Tibbals, whose love for the circus led to a lifetime devoted to collecting and preserving the history of America’s first major popular entertainment. He died March 20 at the age of 85.
Tibbals’ love for the circus inspired his life-long project of creating the “Howard Bros. Circus Model,” a centerpiece of The Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center.
“Through his unique passion, vision, and leadership, Howard Tibbals was a key figure in the growth and transformation of The Ringling,” said Steven High, executive director of The Ringling. “His donations established the Circus Museum as the leading center for the preservation and research of the circus in America and his collections attract scholars and artists from around the world.”
In 1956, as a freshman in college, Tibbals began work on what is today known as “The Howard Bros. Circus Model.” For more than 60 years, he devoted at least 20 hours a week to building pieces for the detailed and historically accurate ¾” scale model of the tented Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus of the early 20th century. The last wagon was added in April 2021.
To assure the historical accuracy of the model circus, Tibbals started collecting materials documenting circus history. Assembled over more than 60 years, The Tibbals Circus Collection includes photographs, posters and other advertising materials, programs, scrapbooks, correspondence, design drawings, costumes and props as well as more than two thousand books related to the circus. This unparalleled collection, now held at The Ringling, documents all aspects of the circus and allied arts such as Wild West, side show and other traveling entertainments.
“The ‘Howard Bros. Circus Model’ and the posters, photographs and other materials in the extraordinary Tibbals Circus Collection are Howard’s great legacy and will continue to delight visitors and inspire new generations to learn about the circus in America,” High said. “I join with our entire community in mourning the loss of this remarkable man.”
Howard Tibbals’ passion, paired with his philanthropic commitment, elevated both the scope and the presentation of circus collections at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and ushered in a period of growth across the museum campus. His legacy at The Ringling assures that new generations of scholars will be able to study circus history and that museum guests can continue to marvel at the wonders of the circus.
“Howard’s greatest gift was sharing his passion for circus history,” said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Tibbals Curator of Circus. “An extraordinary mentor, Howard encouraged me to find my own interests in the subject and enjoyed sharing his knowledge in support of my efforts. He was generous in every way. I could not do this work without all that he taught me, and I am grateful for the resources he established at The Ringling to assure that we can continue to inspire a love for the circus and its history.”
For more information, visit https://www.ringling.org/.