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.”

Photos Kitty Leaken; all images courtesy Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art

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