New exhibit sheds light on hidden stories of diversity in the circus

The circus is not only fun and playful. It was once a haven for women and people of color, according to a new exhibit at the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, England. The exhibition, titled Circus! Show of shows, focuses on the lesser-known stories of circus performers from minority groups, Smithsonian reports.

“The circus was not a middle-aged white man in a clown costume with a red nose,” exhibit curator Vanessa Toulmin said. Smithsonian.

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

Astley’s wife Patty was also a talented horse rider and she performed in the circus with bees swarming around her hands as she rode. Nor was she the only female performer in the early circuses. The exhibition also highlights the 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 hypnotist capable of entering crocodiles.

Somehow, according to Smithsonian, the circus was an opportunity for women and people of color to earn a living and escape from the restrictive roles assigned by Victorian society. This did not mean that performers were not exploited, Smithsonian said. But the entertainment-oriented environment of the circus made traditional stereotypes less important and gave various performers the opportunity to flourish.

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

“Circus is a complex, beautiful and amazing art form,” Toulmin said. Smithsonian. “And I hope people understand that the circus has the diversity and the myriad of stories to appeal to all shapes of people today.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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