Story of British Circus’ explored in new exhibition, ‘Spectacle and Wonder’

Circus archive

A unique collection of rare circus posters, promotional material and archives from Britain’s leading twentieth century circuses will be featured in a new public exhibition at the University of Sheffield’s Western Bank Library.

The exhibition ‘Spectacle and Wonder: The Circus Friends Association Archive’ opens on 7 November 2016 and features popular circus companies, such as Bertram Mills’, Billy Smart’s, Robert Brothers, Chipperfield’s, Fossett’s and Blackpool Tower.

The exhibition celebrates the donation of the Circus Friends Association (CFA) archive. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see and hear interviews with CFA members recalling their personal memories of circus.

To reflect this important donation, the National Fairground Archive, based at the University of Sheffield Library, will be renamed ‘the National Fairground and Circus Archive’.

The National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA) has a world-renowned collection of archives and literature relating to the history of popular entertainment, comprising over 150,000 photographic images, 4000 books and journals and 60,000 items of archive material.

This new donation means it holds the UK's largest publicly accessible collection of circus archives - including posters, programmes, handbills and photographs.

The archive, established in 1994 by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, is located in the University of Sheffield’s Western Bank Library. As well as circus and fairground material, the archive also includes material relating to early cinema, fairs, magic, wild west shows, menageries, variety, seaside entertainment and amusement parks.

Academics and enthusiasts from across the globe travel to Sheffield to visit the archive as part of their research.
The CFA was established in 1934 to stimulate, foster and promote enthusiasm for circus and related performances as part of British culture. The exhibition commemorates the memory of long-serving circus archivist, Malcolm Clay.

Angela Haighton, Head of the NFCA and Digital Humanities at the University of Sheffield Library, said: “We are very excited to receive this unique collection which tells the global story of circuses. As a popular form of entertainment since the eighteenth century, the circus is an important part of our social history.

“The donation of this important collection to the National Fairground and Circus Archive means that we can make it more widely accessible and preserve it for future generations.

“It also reinforces our position as the leading UK repository for circus archives, which attracts both local and international researchers to the University of Sheffield.”

The exhibition will run until April 2017.

Additional Information

For more information on the exhibition, images, and further information about the collections, please see NFCA’s website:

The University of Sheffield

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Kirsty Bowen
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0114 222 1034