Bloomington-Normal’s rich circus history celebrated at ISU exhibit

Chronicle Media

A poster from “The Greatest Show on Earth,” presented by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Combined Circus on display at Milner Library. (Photo by Jack McCarthy/Chronicle Media)

Bloomington-Normal was once among the centers of circus performing in the United States and Illinois State University has opened up its archives to showcase a wide collection of documents, posters and other memorabilia from that era.

More than a year of planning and all six floors of ISU’s Milner Library were utilized to accommodate an undertaking one library staff member called “the biggest exhibit the library has done.”

Sites, Sights, and Sounds of Circus is running through Oct. 15 and celebrates the rich circus history of Bloomington-Normal and ISU.

Visitors are treated to a vast collection of circus posters, costumes, photographs, and artwork displayed throughout library. Famous names like Barnum and Ringling and Wallenda jumped off the pages of business documents, telegraphs, and handwritten letters preserved in the Illinois State collection.

Illustrations of the Bloomington-based comedy Acrobatic act Rice, Bell and Baldwin. (Photo by Jack McCarthy/Chronicle Media)

“This has given us a chance to feature a lot of the more hidden aspects of our collections,” said Special Collections Librarian Rebecca Fitzsimmons. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to really show not just the scale but really the scope of the collection here.”

The exhibition opened in late August with the Circus Historical Society’s annual convention, which brought visitors from all over—some from as far as Australia—who browsed historically significant items kept in Illinois State’s Circus and Allied Arts Collection.

“People have come from around the world,” said Head of Special Collections Maureen Brunsdale. “It’s neat to see their excitement and their enthusiasm for this glorious thing called circus.”

“From the 1870s to the 1950s, Bloomington-Normal was the trapeze capital of the world,” said Brunsdale, who spoke at two Circus Historical Society events after the exhibit opening. “In the 1950s, when performers started being centralized in places like Sarasota, Florida, our library director thought we were losing this cultural component of this community, and we needed to do something about it.

“So, she started the Circus and Allied Arts Collection as a way to document the cultural component of the community that was once here and thriving.”

Illustration by Yetti Frankel of of Anna May having hay cleaned out of her mouth by trainer Ben Williams. (Photo by Jack McCarthy/Chronicle Media)

The Milner exhibit also included a gallery talk from visiting artist Yetti Frenkel and a talk from Milner Library’s 2022 Circus and Allied Arts Fellow Aíne Norris.

A former horse groomer in the Big Apple Circus, Frenkel’s artwork was displayed in the Benway Student Art Exhibition Area. “This is wonderful to see so many people here who share the same love of circus,” Frenkel told the crowd gathered for her talk. “We are kindred spirits.”

A doctoral student at Old Dominion University, Norris spent a week in October 2022 collecting and scanning artifacts from Illinois State’s collection for her dissertation research.

“Access to this collection was formative,” Norris said. “It helped me solidify the pieces I’ll need to formally pitch this project in just a few months, and working here also helped me refine my methodology.”