Circus! Show of Shows debuts at Weston Park Museum this summer

Circus! Show of Shows debuts at Weston Park Museum this summer

23 July 2018

A major new exhibition celebrating 250 show-stopping years of circus in Great Britain is set to make its debut at Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum this summer. Shining a spotlight on the remarkable stories behind the much-loved spectacle, Circus! Show of Shows will bring one of the world’s most famous circus paintings to the city to go on show alongside a dazzling array of costumes, props, rare historic posters, films, archive photographs and more.

In 1768 in London Phillip Astley unveiled a show which, for the very first time, combined equestrianism, clowning and acrobatics within a now iconic circular ring. This ground-breaking performance marked the birth of a global phenomenon; 250 years later, circus continues to amaze and astound audiences, showcasing the talents of legions of impossibly skilled performers in shows around the world. 

Circus! Show of Shows will delve into the drama of the big top to explore some of the hidden histories and most fascinating figures in the circus story. This brand new exhibition in Sheffield is one of three taking place across the country in 2018 co-created by one of the UK’s foremost circus experts, Professor Vanessa Toulmin from the University of Sheffield’s School of English, and supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

At Weston Park Museum, Circus! Show of Shows will explore the hidden histories of women in circus and black circus artists, as well as the city’s own circus heritage. Visitors will 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 feature a host of significant national and international loans alongside an unparalleled array of material drawn 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 the city 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’s School of English says: ‘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 the behind this truly ground-breaking British-born art form.’

Teresa Whittaker, Exhibitions & Displays Curator at Museums Sheffield says:

‘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 in stupendous style with a thrill-packed Family Fun Day on Saturday 28 July, 11am-4pm. Greentop Circus will be wowing the crowds with acrobatic feats guaranteed 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 & Wear Archives & 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).  David Renwick, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Yorkshire and the Humber, says: ‘In the 250th year of the circus in Britain, money raised by National Lottery players is enabling the drama, the highs and lows and the hidden stories of the circus to be shared with thousands of people.  As part of the nationwide celebrations, we are excited that the three exhibitions will engage people of all ages in local circus heritage.’

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: