Professor Vanessa Toulmin co-curates exhibition revealing hidden histories of women in circus

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

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City and Culture in our Partnerships and Regional Engagement department, has co-curated with Museums Sheffield a major new exhibition celebrating 250 show-stopping years of circus in the UK.

The exhibition, Circus! Show of Shows, opened this week at Weston Park Museum and will run until 4 November. It shines a spotlight on the remarkable stories behind the much-loved spectacle, exploring previously unknown histories of women in circus and black circus artists, the changing attitudes to animals in the circus, Sheffield’s own circus heritage and much more.

The exhibits include one of the world’s most famous circus paintings alongside a dazzling array of costumes, props, rare historic posters, films and archive photographs. Much of the material on display comes from our own University Library’s National Fairground and Circus Archive.

Professor Toulmin is the founder and Research Director of the National Fairground Archive (NFA) at our University and one of the UK’s foremost circus experts. Her passion for popular entertainment stems from her childhood on the Winter Gardens fairground in Morecambe and fairgrounds in Lancashire and the North of England. Coming from a family with a history of fairground and showmanship has also greatly influenced her interest on the subject, with numerous famly members performing in shows, in particular her aunty Brenda who was a contortionist at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1960s.

Find out more about Vanessa Toulmin

The exhibition features:

  • 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.

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:

Professor Vanessa Toulmin 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.”