MSi Circus

The Museum of Science and Industry Circus Exhibit.

When the Museum of Science and Industry Circus Exhibit opened in April of 1973, MSI president Daniel M. MacMaster called it “a spectacular addition to the museum's attractions” in a Hyde Park Herald article. He went on to say that it would be as popular as the Coal Mine, U-505 submarine and other major holdings.

Arthur M. Wood, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co., which presented the miniature animated circus, hailed it as “a part of Americana that could have been lost to future generations.”

Originally displayed in the great rotunda of the museum's east pavilion,  suggesting a big top, the 22,000-piece circus collection showcased scenes of circus life of years past, both public and behind the scenes. Highlights included motorized dioramas, starting with the Ringling Brothers Circus Street Parade featuring twenty-six carved models of circus wagons, performers and animals, all moving on a long snake-like winding track. The Big Top, the menagerie, the sideshow and the dining tent were among the other dioramas, which were augmented by intricate circus signs, fun house mirrors, and interactive “peep shows” that allowed visitors to see themselves as a tattooed man, a clown and so on.

The circus exhibit was subsequently moved to a 3,000-square-foot space at the center of the museum, and Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and head curator, said that everyone who comes to the museum—”tens of millions of people”—has walked through it. 

They won't be able to in the future, however. The circus exhibit closed for good on Sept. 6, and the entire collection is being auctioned off on Sept. 24 by Potter & Potter Auctions on the North Side. 

“The exhibit was a nostalgic look at circuses of yesteryear and, after 50 years, it was time to find a new home for it,” McCarthy said. “We wanted to use the space for newer technology, to tell more contemporary stories related to Chicago manufacturing.” 

First up, slated to open by the end of the year and stay up at least a year, is a show about Mold-A-Rama, the Chicago-based company that makes machines that turn out injection-based souvenir molds on the spot.

McCarthy explained that the decision to replace the circus collection was made by an internal committee of the president and staff from across the museum to get a variety of viewpoints. “It's never easy to take down a beloved exhibit, but I think everyone was in agreement that it was necessary to keep the museum relevant and inspiring for our audience,” McCarthy said. 

She added that the museum and the auction house were open to an individual buyer for the whole collection but, when none materialized, they decided that a public auction was preferable to relegating the collection to storage.

Comparatively little is known about the history of the circus collection. It was created by Roland J. Weber, a Chicago railroad worker, over the span of about three decades starting in the 1920s, but it's not clear which of the detailed tents, wagons, animal cages, hand-carved animals and human figures were  actually made by him and which he acquired. Weber constructed the dioramas using bicycle wheels and other common objects.

According to McCarthy, Weber sold the collection to Ken Idle, a disabled veteran who was very interested in the circus and toured the work through the Midwest. In 1970, Sears bought the collection and undertook a restoration project that culminated in the 1973 exhibit opening. 

The Herald article said that DeMartin-Marona and Associates of New York  designed the exhibit, and General Exhibits, Inc. of Chicago was named general contractor. It also reported that restoring the circus pieces required the services of 25 artisans and was completed by Rich and Rush Design Studios of Chicago, while the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin provided basic research and graphic features. 

Sears initially loaned the exhibit to the museum but donated it after 20 years. In the mid-1990s, the latest version opened in the central location and remained open until September of this year.

Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter Auctions, noted that the MSI circus collection accounts for only 27 lots of the 505 in the Sept, 24 auction, his second circus auction this year. Most of the rest are from the circus archives of John and Jan Zweifel, Chicagoans known for touring the country with a miniature version of the White House. The archives were home to tens of thousands of documents, photographs and relics, including correspondence and memorabilia, as well as circus and wild west costumes, posters, banners and objects and documents from the life and career of Tom Thumb, Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum.

On the other hand, the MSI lots are expected to command some of the highest prices of the auction, as speculated by Fajuri, bringing in about 20% of the total. 

“Pairing the Zweifel's paper ephemera with the MSI's objects results in a good balance... and the large dioramas—things that were popular at the museum—should generate a lot of interest, even if it is hard to know where to put one in your basement,” said Fajuri.

Low and high estimates were set in collaboration with the museum. The estimate for the motorized diorama of the street parade is $5,000-$10,000, for example, as is the Big Top diorama. The mechanical coin-operated wagon and big cats display could garner $3,000-$6,000; a painted wooden circus exhibit sign, $1,000-$2,000. 

Fajuri said that few people attend the auctions in person these days but that online buyers, both live and absentee, number in the hundreds and include collectors, dealers, institutions—as many kinds of people as there are acts in the circus. 

McCarthy said that any money the museum realizes from the sale goes back into the MSI collection overall—“to acquire new pieces and maintain the ones we have.” She's hoping it does well with prices falling within the estimates or maybe even going higher.

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