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Baraboo circus museum provides virtual tours, content for homebound while COVID-19 delays opening
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Baraboo circus museum provides virtual tours, content for homebound while COVID-19 delays opening

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Although Baraboo’s circus museum can no longer entertain and educate visitors in person due to the spread of COVID-19, its employees remain dedicated to bringing its content to the public.

Circus World Museum Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said he and his staff have been filming as many virtual tours of the museum, its collection, musical instruments and new exhibits as possible over the past several days to post on social media and “bring continued smiles to people’s faces during this time.”

“We’re trying to get as much content ready to go for the days ahead here so we keep everybody engaged,” he said.

The museum’s spring season was scheduled to start March 16 but has been postponed until at least April 13. O’Donnell noted the opening could be delayed further, depending on state Department of Health Services guidance and the Wisconsin Historical Society’s changing protocols. Circus World operates under Wisconsin Historical Society control.

Dave SaLoutos, ringmaster and marketing director at the museum, said the Wisconsin Historical Society is communicating frequently with state officials to keep up with a situation that’s changing “moment by moment.” Communication within the agency has been a strength during this ordeal with daily meetings and remote correspondence, O’Donnell added.

On Friday, O’Donnell said the museum’s seven employees were still working and healthy, practicing social distancing and extra cleaning protocols. SaLoutos added that they were also spread out across the Water Street grounds.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that everybody, from staff to performers to our guests and our community, remain safe during this time, so we’ll be making decisions based on that primary criteria going forward,” O’Donnell said.

They were posting daily videos, puzzles and other content to the Circus World Facebook and Instagram accounts. After Gov. Tony Evers on Monday ordered all nonessential businesses to close down Tuesday, O’Donnell noted in an email that the museum will continue to share all of the content it can, though posts might not be as frequent.

A printable circus-themed coloring book also is available for free download on the museum’s website, circusworldbaraboo.org.

O’Donnell said his employees are trying to educate and entertain people “who are looking to remain engaged and looking for a momentary alternative to the news of the day” while stuck at home. So far, people from all over the world have been responding positively, he said.

While the spring season typically brings fewer visitors and therefore less revenue for Circus World than summer and fall, O’Donnell expressed concern about the economic impact of being shuttered entirely. He said the museum will adjust as necessary, possibly by buying fewer advertisements and “tightening our belt like everybody is doing.”

“There are many layers to this pandemic that every business and organization has to deal with, safety and health being forefront and then, of course, business decisions beyond that,” he said.

For the usual summer season, Circus World expands its offerings beyond artifacts to include big top performances by acrobats, jugglers, clowns and more, as well as live elephants and tigers. It is currently scheduled to start with a Western theme May 15, but that also could change, O’Donnell noted.

He said he’s concerned about how the pandemic is impacting the circus industry, adding that most performers — including those who travel to Baraboo for the summer season — are independent contractors without 401(k) plans or high salaries. Circus World remains in communication with its summer performers, he said.

“Of course we’re concerned. They’re friends, family members, and it’s a tough time for everybody,” O’Donnell said.

Like everyone else, he doesn’t know how long the pandemic will keep public life in Wisconsin relegated to the virtual world.

“But what I do know and I’d hope is once we come to the other side of this, people are going to want to come together and want to smile and laugh and be amazed at the wonder and joy that the circus has as its currency,” O’Donnell said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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