NORMAL — Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up and feast your eyes on a story and photos about the colossal addition to the Circus and Allied Arts Collection at Illinois State University.
The collection recently grew by more than 250,000 items, including not only artwork and photographs but also numerous sequined and feathered costumes — even a jeweled elephant's blanket.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, sorting and cataloging,” said Maureen Brunsdale, head of ISU's special collections and rare books. But it's a labor of love.
Surrounded by racks of ornate costumes, Brunsdale said, “When you think of circuses, these are the kind of things you think of. … I would love to be able to show this stuff off.”
She may get that opportunity in April when the Circus Fans Association of America brings its annual convention to Normal.
Looking at the capes, long-tailed jackets and headdresses, one can almost imagine an aerialist parading into center ring, flinging off a cape before ascending a ladder to the trapeze or a ringmaster waving in the next act.
“This is the largest donation during my time here,” said Brunsdale, who has been at ISU since 2008.
But the eye-popping costumes are only part of the treasure trove that Brunsdale said was like “Grandma's attic … came to us on a truck.”
Her goal for the next 12 months is to get items sorted and to identify as much as possible, but, Brunsdale said, “It will take us years to get to the level of detail I'd like.”
Helping her with the task are Steve Gossard of Bloomington, an aerialist historian, and Maritza Atayde, an assistant coach with ISU's Gamma Phi Circus and a fourth-generation circus performer whose family operates Circo Atayde Hermanos, Mexicos's oldest and largest circus.
The donation came from a longtime collector, Herbert Ueckert of Sarasota, Fla., who selected ISU's Milner Library in part because the collection will be used as a resource for students.
“We are absolutely thrilled that they have accepted our collection and look forward to seeing the items shared and used for educating ISU students and the larger public,” Ueckert said in a statement issued by ISU.
“The passion of Herb and his partner Neil Cockerline is the circus, its history and its impact on society,” said Brunsdale. “Circuses helped to entertain and inspire. With the collection we will continue to inspire for generations to come.”
She said Ueckert “developed wonderful relationships with those performers” who contributed to his collection.
Among the gems in the donation are original poster art — a first for ISU's collection.
Morgan Price, an assistant professor of art who teaches lithography, is excited about the poster art, said Brunsdale.
“He just can't wait to get his students in here,” she said.
The new additions, particularly the costumes, will be useful for students in theater and fashion to study costume design and construction methods, added Brunsdale.
Art, marketing and business students also can benefit, she said.
Gossard, author of “A Reckless Era of Aerial Performance: The Evolution of Trapeze,” said the latest donation is “just overwhelming.”
Closely studying the original poster art, Gosssard said, “We'll be able to date them withing a certain number of years by the people who are recognizable,” such as the Flying Concellos, who wintered in Bloomington, training at the Ward-Concello Practice Barn in the 1930s.
Gossard described the posters as “a democratic form of art.” He said multiple artists contributed to a single poster, using specialists in drawing horses and other animals, people or lettering.
Going through scrapbooks that are also part of the new donation, Brunsdale was excited to find photos of people with Bloomington ties, such as Eddie and Jennie Ward, who trained in Bloomington and performed with the Ringling Bros. Circus.
“They become like family,” she said of the performers Brunsdale sees when going through old photos.
Sometimes she gets to meet the individuals, such as when trapeze artist Jeannie Sleeter Singleton visited the library in 2016. She recorded an oral history from the then-86-year-old.
“I've got the best job ever,” said Brunsdale. "The thing that brings me back every day is the stories."