As plans continue for a museum centered on the history of carnivals, the International Independent Showmen’s Museum (IISM) is looking to the USF Library’s digital collections to help them preserve the history of a dying breed of entertainment.
The IISM has been compiling carnival photos for two decades, but it was three years ago that Andrew Huse, the assistant librarian for Special Collections, approached IISM member Lee Stevens to initiate the University’s involvement with the project.
The significance of preserving the carnival’s history goes beyond the act, Huse said.
“The important thing to understand is that the carnival represents our first national culture,” he said. “Before the radio, before the Internet, before the television, these traveling shows brought national culture to small towns across America.”
Chuck Mayo, who is heading the digitalization project for the IISM, said the information provided by the Library will make many photos and the historic story of American carnivals available to anyone in the country.
“I’m researching photos, too, before they are entered into the digital collection (by the Library),” Mayo said.
The USF Library is also helping in other ways.
“The Library’s part has been to document the showman’s histories thorough interviews,” Huse said.
Huse, who interviewed some of the traveling performers, said the oral interviews give depth to the promotional photos. He said one interesting story was that of Stevens, who dropped out of high school to join the circus.
“He started from nothing, cleaning up after the circus and knowing nothing, to really
learning the trade from a lot of older greats,” he said.
Huse said Stevens went on to work with Ringling Bros. Circus and other big productions, but his roots are still in the small circuses.
Many of the museum’s photos are of unknown origin.
“Most of the photos are taken for publicity purposes — lots of promotional photos for rides and Ferris wheels, lots of pictures of freaks, juggling trapeze artists, lots of animal shows,” Huse said.
He said the photos date back to the 1800’s and were compiled from an array of organizations. The Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center is funding the preservation effort.
“USF’s help with our project has encouraged us to immediately start with preserving these photos,” Mayo said. “The (digitalization) project would have been put off for several more years without USF’s direct involvement.”
The IISM is planning to supplement the digital photo collection with a physical museum.
“(Members) are looking to create a museum in Gibsonton, where the carnies have lived for many decades now during the offseason,” Huse said.
With a Ferris wheel as its centerpiece, the museum would exhibit objects and games found at carnivals, such as plaster dolls from the ’40s and ’50s.
However, the building project has been stalled and is awaiting a contractors’ bid in the fall to assess the cost of construction, Mayo said.
Until the museum’s completion, the best opportunity to view the evolution of American carnival’s history will be through USF’s digital collections.