As a child, when the circus came to town, it was exceedingly exciting. The sight of the big top was a sure sign that the local park had just undergone a magical upgrade, and thus ensued hours of pestering parents for tickets. Whoever came up with the concept of bringing the circus to Weston Park for the entirety of the summer holidays was on to a winner.
Circus! Show of Shows is optimised to captivate even the youngest audience member with an array of dazzling costumes, props, puppets, bold posters, giant skeletons, trapeze footage, a fancy-dress box and colourful title cards. It also features enough commentary to engage the older visitor, tracing 250 years of history, noting Sheffield’s involvement in the circus scene and pausing to consider animal cruelty and social inclusion on the way.
By its very nature circus is a stunning visual spectacle and Circus! Show of Shows manages to bottle this and put it on the walls of Weston Park Museum. The first thing we encounter is a case of sequin-clad costumes including iconic clown shoes and ringmaster jacket. Staring down from the walls are posters of daring horse riders, coordinated polar bears, beguiling fortune tellers and human cannon balls, encapsulating that mystical thrill of the extraordinary. Context comes from the carefully curated sections that cover topics such as “global and local circus”, “black circus performers”, “animal circus” and “women in circus”.
Both the black circus performers and women in circus sections address that timeless issue of historic narratives only representing certain people. New research from Professor Vanessa Toulmin at the University of Sheffield uncovers fresh insights into Pablo Fanque, an acclaimed black equestrian who performed when slavery was still not entirely abolished in Britain. His talent is acknowledged next to that of Olga Kaira – or Miss LaLa as she was known – an incredible aerialist and acrobat who starred in the Edgar Degas portrait that is now one of the world’s most famous circus paintings, and is here on a rare loan from the National Gallery. Together, their stories – told through adverts, photography and Degas’s painting – demonstrate the inclusiveness of circus even when those values were not shared by society.