In March of 2020, I gave a presentation – “First in Half the World – A Spiel on the Peale” – as the opening event for the USofA’s oldest sideshow convention, the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny in New Orleans. And its pitch ran something like this:
“During the War of 1812, during the siege of Ft. McHenry, there was another notable event besides the dawning of the “Star-Spangled Banner”: Under construction – the siege visible from its scaffolding – was the oldest purpose-built museum in the Western Hemisphere. The Peale Museum was the outgrowth of the Peale family’s exhibition franchise that spread across the Mid-Atlantic and typified virtually all the glories – and contradictions & conflicts – of the museum business even today. “America’s sideshow historian,” James Taylor, talks on the Peale’s history and legacy, one that highlights institutions from the Smithsonian to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! to dime museums and carnival midway shows.”
But that’s not all you’ll see here. Really, what spiel consists of only what’s advertised?
Happy World Circus Day! This year’s theme is collaboration and cooperation for the future of circus, making today an ideal opportunity to announce our Circus Arts program at the 2017 Folklife Festival. As part of our fiftieth anniversary celebrations, Circus Arts will take people behind the scenes of circus life to explore the culture and artistry of one of America’s most important and historic performance art traditions.
We are proud to present a program that celebrates the circus because it reflects the incredible diversity of people, history, and creative energy in our country and our world. Like the Folklife Festival, it provides a way for people from all over the world to share their arts, foods, languages, rituals, and other customs. For many Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the circus brought glimpses of a wider world through dazzling sights, sounds, and stunts—a living antecedent of the internet.
After weathering a period of some decline, circus arts are now experiencing a grassroots revival focused on live human performance and creativity. Circus arts are bubbling up once again all over the country through new circus schools and community-based organizations created by veteran artists. Their collective stories and recollections comprise a very important part of the American experience.
Artists and coaches, costume designers, makeup artists, musicians, lighting and sound technicians, prop and tent designers, riggers, poster artists, wagon builders, cooks, and many others whose collective work brings the circus to life will come together on the National Mall to share their experiences.
Focused on human physicality and performance finesse, the program will bring veteran and retired circus greats together with a new generation of artists who are now pushing the craft toward new directions and limits. We hope that circus artists from past, present, and future will enrich us all with their collective artistry and skills.
Join us to experience a flight on a trapeze—or the discovery of a hidden clown personality. Learn the basics of concentrated juggling and acrobatics—or what it takes to walk a high wire. Easy? Not exactly!
We look forward to sharing more information about this exciting program and about the traditions, artistry, and skills that keep the circus arts alive and engaging.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on this program, and join us in Washington, D.C., June 29 through July 4 and July 6 through 9, 2017, to celebrate the circus arts at the 2017 Folklife Festival. Together, let’s ensure a vibrant future for circus.
Preston Scott is the curator for the 2017 Circus Artsprogram and a resident of Sarasota, Florida—historical headquarters to many circus artists and organizations.