Through the Eyes: A History of Contradictions

Tasked to create an entire exhibition using 7 random items, we chose to create a story revolving around the plight of animals in the American traveling circus

Large- Bicycle, airplane propeller
Medium- selection of 10 books, newspaper
Small- token, letter
Random- carved ivory elephant tusk

Before radio, movies and television, the tented circus thrilled audiences across the world since the 1800s with its talents and animal acts. Americans put a unique spin on this ancient form of entertainment, but with it came the issue of how its exotic and trained animals were mistreated. Through The Eyes: A History of Contradictions exhibit takes us through the wonders of this visual performing art and the plight of its traveling menagerie as we are immersed in the story of Jumbo, the first international animal star.

  • Role Concept development, design direction, rendered perspectives, scale model
  • For Exhibition Design Intensive – Pratt Institute
  • Date October 20, 2015
  • Type Exhibition
  • Designers Raleene Cabrera, Sofia Beas & Ridhima Chhibber


The visitor enters a circus tent and arrives to a circular space that mimics the real circus experience. The space has red and white striped walls made up of tent fabric and the lighting is very dramatic. The ambience is of an exciting but intense show. There are a lot of things happening in the background of this particular moment in the exhibition, which excites the curiosity and also contributes to the intentional intensity of the ambience. The floors are of dim color and they are smooth, you don’t notice them a lot so that the different floor material for this space and the next is significant.
As the visitor enters, he is given a token (replica of the original token for Barnum’s circus, which is on display later on) that he can interact with in certain parts of the show and later take home. The first moment the visitor experiences is a magnificent photo of Jumbo performing on his original tricycle with the actual tricycle on display. There is a brief introduction to him and what the museum is about.


Moving along the path, the visitor gets to the history of the beginning of circus. There is a big screen that is playing a Ken Burns-style video with audio telling the story. In the story we are introduced to Barnum, a key figure in the history of the American circus and the person who bought Jumbo, the star of the exhibition. Below the screen there is a display table that holds one of the original tokens used to enter Jumbo’s show. The display table has a base designed in an abstracted circus aesthetic and has a glass vitrine on top where the token is placed and beside is a brief text describing its history and importance. A warm spotlight is directed at the display table to create emphasis on the object and contrast for the ambience.

Following along, the visitor arrives to Jumbo’s story and the history of how and why animals were introduced to the circus. In this part, there is another display table that exhibits the original letter that Barnum wrote to buy Jumbo from London’s zoo. The display table is consistent in its design with the one in the “Beginning of Circus”, the form and color are of a circus aesthetic abstraction and it will have a glass vitrine to show and protect the object. The letter, apart from being an important proof of the transaction that introduced animals to circuses in America, addresses a lot of historical moments and persons that put context into Jumbo’s story. An example is how Barnum had to ask permission from Queen Victoria of England to buy Jumbo or what were the particular technicalities they had to achieve in order to bring Jumbo from overseas because of his size. To point out these important facts, inside the glass vitrine there will be a clear acrylic that will have small numbers pointing out subjects the exhibition wants to talk about. Each number and subject will be referenced in a panel that will be exhibited in front of the display table. All of these panels will have a picture of the subject on the front and a brief written description on the back. The visitor is then encouraged to interact and turn the panels over to read more of the subject matter.


This is a highly interactive section in which visitors can get a sense of the scale and difficulty of the tricks performed by Jumbo and other artists throughout the history of circuses. A trapeze is hung at a height in which the artists usually perform so that visitors can sense the danger performers expose themselves to. There are sponge clubs so that visitors can try to juggle. There are clown noses, wigs and makeup for the visitor to try on in front of the mirror and to take pictures of around the set. Illumination is strong and blinding to the eye so that the visitor knows that the spotlight is now on them. Close to the tent wall, behind the interactive activities, there are various posters of Jumbo and his days in the circus as an international animal star. The relationship between both areas in this specific part of the exhibition is important in the sense that the visitors gets to experience the spotlight themselves and they have photographic evidence of Jumbo doing it, so it immediately puts the visitor in Jumbo’s shoes.
It is an important part for the visitor and the transition of the story because by putting them on the spotlight and making them conscious of what it takes to be there, they’ll begin to question if it all of it is really worth it and if the people and animals who do it, really like it. The idea of how circuses are showing false realities is put into the visitor’s mind and this leaves them ready to go out of the tent/front stage of the show to enter backstage- to eventually discover the reality of what a circus is, specifically for elephants.



As the visitor comes out of the tent, there is a change in ambience and mood. The room is dark and dull unlike the previously bright and cheerful space. There is a drop in room temperature; this symbolizes the nighttime as well as the uncomfortable temperature in which animals are kept after the show. The floor is a harsher material made of compacted hay and dirt, making more resistance while walking and making the visitors’ movements difficult. The change in lighting and setup is similar to the stage scene defining suspense with the groans of elephants and noise of sticks hitting them. In a way, it is a stage setup of the training time with a static image and no videos.

Controversy 1. The situation of animals is different backstage and front stage.

The whole wall has a textured 1:1 scale cage with images of the elephants behind bars to symbolize the feeling of being trapped/ claustrophobic. The space also gets smaller making the movement a little difficult. This trapped feeling with forced slow movement is similar to the conditions of elephants, a contradiction between the natural habitats of elephants to the artificial.
It also gives a glimpse of food that is provided. Through partial windows/cutouts behind the “cage panels” they can opt see the animals’ struggle in their chambers/while traveling through screens. These videos have no audio due to the graphic nature of the content.

Controversy 2. The contradiction between the natural habitat and the one they have in circuses. The laws or standards imposed by the government to hold onto an animal, to what is actually given to the animals because of less/no inspections.

In front of the wall and elephants are 10 books, which tell the story of each elephant’s struggle and suffering at different points in time in various circuses. These are on lighted glass vitrines on top of lighted, stacked crates used by the traveling circus and scattered around the space to encourage visitors to read through each story.


As the visitors move along, there is an emphasis on the clear box holding Jumbo’s carved tusk. The surroundings are dark and the tusk is the point of focus by being encased in a lighted box. It is mystical and relates directly to the visitor as Jumbo’s, living with the organization and people.
Right in front of it is the original newspaper, which covered and published the story of Jumbo’s life and death. The space has an odd temperature and lighting. This emphasizes the struggle and the hard reality of losing Jumbo.


Visitors step into another part of the room that is completely dark apart from the lighted path. They are faced by one wall with a life-size image of 5 elephants performing a trick, and you hear their struggle through audio. The trainers are also seen on the image, and on the audio you can hear their commands.
The opposite part of the wall has a projection of the circuses today on the tent material, with quotes/text from the video “Boycott Circuses That Use Animals” as subtitles, revealing the industry practice of the Ringling Brothers circus today. The visitors cannot see the cruel training on video, just what viewers expect to enjoy in a typical circus but the reality is reflected on the text.

Sample text: “The hooks and chains remind the elephants we are in control of you.”



The narrow linear corridor acts as a transition space from the animal cruelty to alternative forms of circuses. The atmosphere has pleasant lighting with transitions, which are slow and noticeable into various colors- a sign of hope and change in the animal circus society. The space showcases the examples of alternative circuses such as flying circuses, Cirque du Soleil, acrobatics, etc. that believe in entertainment without animals. The flying circus, which surged in the 1970s used aeroplanes for the air tricks and entertainment. One of the oldest propellers from the flying circus is on display. It is in front a biplane image that acts as a stage setup and visitors can take photos pretending to perform the tricks of the flying circuses.
The other wall includes the exhibition videos of impressive acrobatics and highlights their many successful shows.



Introduction to how the world has reacted against the animal abuse and what has been done to stop it.

Concrete examples through text, photographs and videos of what organizations have done to stop animal cruelty in circuses and how the situation has improved. Videos and photos showing the elephant’s reaction when they were set free or were re-united with their loved ones.


In this part of the museum the visitors can participate by giving suggestions on what they think can be done at their level and on an organizational level. Visitors can digitally access a suggestion booth, information about the organizations and their achievements and how they can become an active part of the organization to make a difference. As a gift from the exhibition and as a reminder to do something after your visit, the visitor will be given a small badge that can be worn to create awareness. They can also choose to take home a framed paper certificate that says they have taken a step to support the organizations helping animals get out of the circuses. They can sign it and put their thumbprint on it, as well as attach/keep the token they were first given at the start of the exhibition. This certificate has all the information about the organizations and the exhibition behind it so they’re encouraged to actively participate in sharing it to spread awareness.


Visitors exit along a wall of videos of elephants that are cute, beautiful, funny and endearing to show their magnificence.