MORRIS MINIATURE CIRCUS
IN America at the turn of the 20th century, circuses traveled by train. They stopped in small towns, unloaded the cars, and set up tents. Inside, humans and animals were dispatched to delight and amuse spectators who drove from miles around for the sights and sounds of the midway, big top, and sideshow. But when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, circus trains came to a screeching halt. A way of life ended for families who looked forward to the annual festivities, which lasted from the first train whistle to the moment the final tent spike was put away, and the circus train departed for the next town.
W.J. Morris, known as “Windy,” missed the circus acutely. He was born in 1904 in Benton County, Arkansas, where the circus had been coming since 1881. As a young man living in Amarillo, Texas, with his wife, Josephine, and working as a farmer, Morris decided to build a model circus wagon that harked back to his youth. While he was working on that project, a larger vision began to take shape: a complete circus, built in miniature at 3/8- inch scale, so that he could share his love of this bygone era with his children and future generations. He set up a workshop in the family’s basement and got started. The first phase took 15 years.
“It was much smaller than this, probably about half this size,” said Laura Addison, curator of European and American folk art collections at the Museum of International Folk Art, during a recent visit by Pasatiempo. As she spoke, she swept her arm expansively over the seven tents and approximately 100,000 parts and pieces of the Morris Miniature Circus.
Morris took the original product to a number of state fairs, but the second phase, which he finished in 1970, was viewed only by family and friends. It had taken over much of the house, and to build it, Morris learned all sorts of casting and molding methods as well as many other craft- and hobby-oriented skills, including woodworking, carving, drafting, clay modeling, painting, and model railroading. Some pieces were store-bought, but Morris fabricated most of them. Morris died in 1978, and the family gave his miniature circus to MOIFA in 1984 for its permanent collection. It was displayed once, in 1986. Thirty years later, Addison said, people still ask when the circus is coming back.
“I think when it happened it was a big event here,” Addison said. She has been with the museum for two and a half years. “It hit a lot of different audiences: kids, because it’s a circus, and people who remember this kind of circus, and it appeals to people who like building models and to model-train people.” On Sunday, April 3, the Morris Miniature Circus returns to MOIFA with a reception, which features a parade, aerial performances by Wise Fool New Mexico, and activities for children and adults.
Recreating the Morris Miniature Circus was more complicated than simply removing it from storage and setting it up. Though t he individual human and animal figures were in good shape, there were no written instructions for how things should be arranged or how anything worked. Preparators used photos and video from the 1986 exhibit, and some artistic license, to construct the new display. Some aspects were difficult, a process of trial and error. It took almost six weeks to erect the tents, and it was only after they had been laboriously tethered, bit by bit, that preparators discovered that the rigging attached to the tent tops was not decorative but functional. According to notes from 1986, the original motor that operates the various moving parts, including the circus wagon parade and the trapeze artists, was on its last legs by the time the exhibit closed. “When we first tested it, it started smoking, so it was pretty clear that if we wanted this to move, which is really the heart of the miniature circus, we would have to do some additional work,” Addison said. Once they figured out how the moving pieces moved
— side to side or up and down — a new electrical system was created to run each piece. (The original motor is displayed in the exhibit.) Restoration also included stringing new LED lights in the tents. The original lights are still in place, but the bulbs burned out long ago. Replacing them and fixing Morris’ original, now frayed, wiring would have presented a fire hazard. “We’re keeping the older lights so you can appreciate the handmade quality of them. They are sort of beautiful in their own way. He’d take this recycled metal and shape it as he needed to. He used a lot of wooden food cartons too. He used cheese crates to make the circus wagons. They’re the right thickness.”
Nostalgia for the circus is more complicated, however, than pleasant memories of childhood. “No matter how beloved it is, you can’t get away from the fact that it was exoticizing other cultures and that the sideshow was incredibly insensitive to people with disabilities,” Addison said. “Colloquially, they called it a freak show.” Animal abuse is a concern that has continued to affect 21st-century circuses, as does the exploitation and abuse of child entertainers, especially in India. Included in the exhibit is information about the dark side of circuses, particularly the tradition of the sideshow, which was essentially a human zoo where onlookers could gape at people who were extremely fat, thin, hairy, strong, or in some way different.
“P.T. Barnum was one of the progenitors of the sideshow,” Addison said. “One thing I didn’t know was that he purchased a slave to travel around in his sideshow, even though he was presumably antislavery.” Barnum spoke against the practice of slavery in 1865 at the Connecticut State Legislature, but in 1835, when he was getting his start as a showman, he purchased a blind and paralyzed African-American woman named Joice Heth, claiming she was more than 160 years old and had once been a nurse to George Washington.
Morris’ circus is anchored in the social mores of his childhood, circa 1910, so there are “human oddities” in the sideshow and a line of culturally vague dark-skinned people in headscarves walking into the menagerie where the elephants are kept. The miniature circus also reflects the racial segregation in place at that time. In the stands of the big top, black people are sep parated from white, except for a white nun engag ged in a quiet act of civil disobedience.
AddisonA and the preparators made cultur ral sensitivity a priority, determining wh hich pieces of Morris’ circus ref lected fa actual history and which pieces presented outdated,o offensive stereotypes. “For i nnstance, t he f i gures going i nto t he menageriem — people still dress like that; it’ ’s not a stereotype. There are also bagpipe pla ayers in Scottish kilts, which are also stil ll worn as a traditional costume.” On a tab ble off to the side of the circus are a few tra ays of Native American figures, as well as s a tepee and totem pole. Addison said theyt will not be included in the exhibit becauseb they represent a homogenized, stereotypical view of Native life. “This person in a headdress is a stereotype. The tepee is more Plains Indians, but it’s juxtaposed with the totem pole, which is more Northwest Coast. These figures are store-bought, not things he made. I think these issues are valuable to bring to the forefront, and they are interesting problems to contextualize for the exhibit and about which to have ongoing conversations.”