The Museum of Science and Industry Circus exhibition folds its tent

The child was stepping into a world bathed in crimson light. She could hear the whistle of a member’s steam.

The circus announcer teased: “You will see Julie Marge, the heaviest human alive! … and little Timothy, the smallest man on earth!”

And then she was spying, at her eye level, the golden lights at the big top and the rickety little figures dangling above the safety net. Perhaps she dreamed of one day becoming a trapeze artist.

For the better part of five decades, thousands of children – and adults too – have experienced the thrill of the circus as they wander through an exhibit on the art form at the Museum of Science and Industry.

A child looks at the now closed circus exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

For many, it was magical, for others, like a nightmare scene from a bad horror flick. But for everyone, it is now just a memory. Dozens of or so remaining items — including 10 handcrafted dioramas with mechanical moving shapes — were removed earlier this month to make way for a new gallery.

Traditional circuses, like rotating phones and car movies, don’t have the same allure it once did.

“We want to always be in touch with our audience,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections at the museum and head of exhibitions. “Science and technology is a field that is moving really fast. So this content is nostalgic. Although it is really interesting and interesting, we thought we needed the space to offer new content.”

So the museum’s collection will take place in the auction arena, along with hundreds of other circus-related items from around the world; Among them is a toolbox belonging to Karl Wallenda, the famous high-wire infantryman who fell to his death in 1978. On the inside of the lid, it read: “Tell me if there are any tools broken or missing. Your life depends on it.” There are also countless circus posters and photographs by sideshow performers, including Francesco Lentini, the “three-legged Italian wonder”.

The auction is set for September 24 at Potter & Potter Auctions at


Visitors to the original circus exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry watch a movie meant to make them feel as if they were in a big tent. | Provided image.

The collection dates back to the 1920s

But the Science Museum’s collection is unique among the other items up for auction because it was not left out of a real circus. The dioramas and eight miniature figures were built, beginning in the 1920s, by Roland Weber, a Chicago railroad worker.

Aside from the trapeze performers and the lion tamer, there are also intimate daily scenes of circus life, including small excerpts of workers reading while sitting on the toilet.

McCarthy said that little is known about Weber, but that his work was clearly a “labour of love.”

Weber began building at the end of the so-called golden age of the circus, which lasted from 1872 to 1929, when the Great Depression struck.

60- or 70-car long-distance trains of trapeze artists, horses, elephants, zebras, and polar bears slither through towns before the circus is set up for shows.

“It was literally a tent town” when I arrived, said Pete Schrake, archivist at the World Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Small towns were closing their doors when the circus came.

“Here comes this show with Sarge Knights from Saudi Arabia, a peaceful work from China, and Japanese artists,” Shark said.

Weber’s miniatures captured that excitement, and the Museum of Science and Industry recreated it when it first exhibited his work. The diorama was created in the early 1970s under the rotating east wing. A circus movie shown on a vertical screen.

“They wanted you to feel like you’re on top,” McCarthy said.

With a little imagination, you might smell elephant feces and a variety of fried goodies.

arouse passion

In the early 1990s, the gallery – now much smaller – was moved to its newest location. For some visitors, it seemed out of place – almost an afterthought. The kids hurried their way to the dazzling U-505 exhibit.

But just because the circus gallery no longer exists, that doesn’t mean the art form is extinct.

The circus is smaller. They travel mostly by trucks. Shrak said they have struggled during the pandemic.

“It is an art form that evolves and changes. And when you see it, it sparks passion.” “I challenge anyone to go to the circus and not be drawn to the art form that it is.”

One of the dioramas that has been on display for years in the Circus Gallery at the Museum of Science and Industry.

One of the dioramas that has been on display for years in the Circus Gallery at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Heidi Peters / Science Museum

Stage mirrors and other items from the circus exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Stage mirrors and other items from the circus exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Heidi Peters / Science Museum

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