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Spotlight on Circus: Early Influencers

Spotlight on Circus: Early Influencers

Spotlight on Circus collections share curatorial insights about connections between objects in the Circus collection and their significance to the history of the circus and allied arts.

When it was decided that the entire Rotunda would be a gallery space, I was excited by the possibilities of showing off the range of the circus collections. And the first part of my process was to look back at the history of the Circus Museum, particularly to its founding by Chick Austin. I was intrigued by what is ultimately a bit of a contradiction in terms of words and actions. Austin named the collection “The Museum of the American Circus” and then promptly began purchasing European prints related to the circus and allied arts. That seeming contradiction is at the heart of all of our interpretations of circus – a divide between displays of history and celebrations of art. The circus deserves both.

In looking for information about these prints, two very different lines of research led me to the same name – Charles Dibdin. a multi-talented figure whose influence on the London theater scene of the late 18th century was formidable. He was a writer, composer and theater manager among many other pursuits. Although his contemporary Philip Astley was credited with the first performances that could be characterized as circus, Dibdin is credited as the first to apply the term “Circus” to describe the multi-disciplinary performances in a ring. Almost two decades later he altered the traditional costume of the Harlinquinade’s Clown character, dressing Joseph Grimaldi in brightly colored silks rather than rags. This costume would become the standard for clowns in the European circus ring for generations. So many names are a regular part of our telling of circus history, but somehow Charles Dibdin, who so influentially shaped the early circus, was not a name that has received much attention in our galleries.