New Exhibition Spotlights the Hidden Histories of Diversity in the Circus

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The circus isn't just fun and games. It was once an early refuge for women and people of color, according to a new exhibit at the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, England. The exhibit, titled Circus! Show of Shows, focuses on the lesser-known histories of circus performers from minority groups, Smithsonian reports.

“Circus was not a middle-aged white man in a clown suit with a red nose,” exhibit curator Vanessa Toulmin told Smithsonian.

Courtesy of Museums Sheffield. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. © The National Gallery, London. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1925.

The first modern circus was staged by Londoner Philip Astley in 1768. Astley was a former military officer and an expert equestrian, and he discovered he could perform seemingly impossible tricks if he rode a horse galloping in a tight circle.

Astley’s wife Patty was also a talented equestrian, and she performed in the circus with bees swarming around her hands as she rode. She wasn’t the only female performer in early circuses, either. The exhibition also spotlights black performer Miss La La, an acrobat; Lulu Adams, one of the first female clowns; and French performer Renée Bernard, who posed as an Indian mesmerist who could entrance crocodiles.

In a way, according to Smithsonian, the circus was an opportunity for women and people of color to earn an income of their own and to buck off the restrictive roles assigned by Victorian society. That didn’t mean performers weren’t exploited, Smithsonian says. But the entertainment-focused environment of the circus made traditional stereotypes less important and gave diverse performers an opportunity to flourish.

Courtesy of Museums Sheffield. Koringa, Bertram Mills circus programme 1939. Copyright University of Sheffield Library, National Fairground and Circus Archive.

The exhibit will remain in Sheffield until November 4, and versions of the exhibit will soon open in two other locations in England.

“The circus is a complex, beautiful, and amazing art form,” Toulmin told Smithsonian. “And I hope that people understand that circus has the diversity and myriad of histories to appeal to all forms of people today.”

[h/t Smithsonian]