Hidden histories of women in circus revealed as part of new exhibition

  • Major new exhibition shines spotlight on remarkable stories behind 250 years of circus in the UK
  • Exhibition explores previously unknown histories of women in circus and black circus artists
  • Visitors can explore changing attitudes to animals in circus and the enduring influence circus has on popular culture
  • Exhibition co-curated by University of Sheffield’s Professor Vanessa Toulmin, one of the UK’s most renowned circus experts

7. Lady and the Lion from Les Roux Cirque et la vie Foraine, published in 1889. UoS

A major new exhibition celebrating 250 show-stopping years of circus in the UK has launched this week thanks to a researcher at the University of Sheffield.

Shining a spotlight on the remarkable stories behind the much-loved spectacle, Circus! Show of Shows, is showcasing one of the world’s most famous circus paintings alongside a dazzling array of costumes, props, rare historic posters, films, archive photographs and more.

Co-curated by Museums Sheffield and Professor Vanessa Toulmin from the University of Sheffield, who is one of the UK’s foremost circus experts, the brand new exhibition will delve into the drama of the big top to explore some of the hidden histories and most fascinating figures in the circus story.

The exhibition at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, is one of three taking place around the country. It will explore the hidden histories of women in circus and black circus artists, as well as the city’s own circus heritage.

Visitors can also learn more about the changing attitudes to animals in circus and see the enduring influence circus has had on popular culture.

The exhibition will also feature a host of significant national and international loaned items alongside an unparalleled array of material drawn from the University of Sheffield Library’s National Fairground and Circus Archive and Sheffield Libraries and Archives:

  • The centrepiece of the exhibition will be one of the world’s most famous circus paintings, Degas’ Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, which comes to Sheffield on loan from The National Gallery. Miss La La was one of the most revered circus performers of her time – an incredibly talented French artiste who appeared before rapturous crowds in both London and Paris during the late 1800s. It was in Paris where she was painted by Degas, whose breath-taking depiction sees the acclaimed aerialist suspended from the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth, over 200 feet in the air. The painting will be accompanied by a film of a spectacular new performance created by contemporary circus performer and aerialist, Blaze Tarsha, in response to the Degas work.
  • The exhibition will present a spectacular array of original circus costumes and props, including an elaborate pair of late 19th century acrobat trunks worn by foot-juggler Edwin Moxon. The displays will also feature a trapeze and costume made and used in the 1990s by Becky Truman, who was just 21 when she established her all-women trapeze company in Bradford. Also on show will be a female equestrian ballerina costume, a Ringmasters uniform and a boy’s clown costume from the Billy Smart Circus, which was the first circus to be broadcast live on television in 1947.
  • Visitors will see historical specimens from Sheffield’s Natural Science collection acquired from the many circuses and travelling menageries which visited the city in the late 19th and early 20th century. The displays, which will show how public opinion of using animals in performance changed, will include the rearticulated skeleton of a camel which was originally part of Day’s Menagerie in the late 1800s, a mountain lion from Wombwell’s Menagerie, and a bonobo chimpanzee, which performed in the Bostock’s Jungle Chimps Tea Party. The specimens will be accompanied by posters used by activists to protest the treatment of animals in circuses.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Chair of Early Film and Popular Entertainment at the University of Sheffield said: “I am delighted to be working with three magnificent museums to tell the story of circus in Great Britain. These exhibitions illustrate the inclusiveness, innovation and spectacle of circus and celebrate the people behind this truly groundbreaking British-born art form.”

Teresa Whittaker, Exhibitions and Displays Curator at Museums Sheffield added: “We’re thrilled to be working with Professor Toulmin to celebrate 250 years of circus in the UK. Circus has a particularly rich history in Sheffield; it’s a hugely popular and incredibly influential art form which continues to evolve and develop over two centuries since it was conceived. We’re delighted to be telling its remarkable story at Weston Park Museum.”

Circus! Show of Shows will open with a Family Fun Day on Saturday 28 July 2018, from 11am-4pm. Greentop Circus will be entertaining the crowds with acrobatic feats to astound and delight and visitors will have the chance to learn circus skills from the experts, as well as enjoy lots of circus-inspired family activities, face painting, music, and more.

The Circus! Show of Shows exhibition series will continue in October at the Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life and at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle. The exhibitions have been developed through a partnership between Museums Sheffield, Norfolk Museums Service, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and the University of Sheffield Library National Fairground and Circus Archive.

Circus! Show of Shows is generously supported by a £98,000 National Lottery grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The exhibitions form part of Circus 250, a UK-wide celebration marking the anniversary of this most pervasive, popular, born-in-Britain art form. For more information visit: circus250.com

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

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Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

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For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852