By Bridget Truskey and Jon Pachura
Roll up, roll up…see a ring worn by a sideshow giant and the tiny shoes of of Tom Thumb’s diminutive bride, and all without setting a foot off campus. Milner Library is set to venture under the big top and into the unknown as they unveil an exhibit featuring circus sideshows. “One of Us: Sideshows, Freaks, and the Unexplained,” will take place in the library’s Special Collections section on the sixth floor from October 27th until December 12th. It features artifacts, collections, speakers, and other circus-related attractions.
While the exhibit is bound to attract those interested in the abnormal and taboo, the Special Collections section itself is one of Illinois State’s hidden treasures. “Not many people know about it,” said Megan Dowling, Milner Library employee. “It’s a shame because it’s so interesting. They have books in there that are hundreds of years old, exclusive to Milner.”
True to Dowling’s words, Milner’s Circus and Allied Arts section of Special Collections is interesting in and of itself, being one of the largest collections of its kind in existence. It holds 8,000 volumes of books, along with photographs, posters, programs, band scores, and so much more related to carnivals, sideshows, circuses, and vaudeville.
“They make you wash your hands before you go in,” said Emily Meadow, frequenter of the Special Collections section. “That’s how protective they are of the content.”
The exhibit couldn’t have come at a better time. With Halloween just days after the opening, students are already in the mood for the macabre. Not to mention the monstrous popularity of the television series American Horror Story with its current season about a 1950s freak show. “I really didn’t have any interest in freak shows before watching this season,” said Kevin Oboikovitz, avid American Horror Story fan. “They make it in a way that ties old history and superstitions into it. It’s pretty interesting. I’d be curious to see if the exhibit had any information to back those up.”
“One of Us” is set to explore the division between so-called “freaks of nature” and the “normal” people who viewed them as a form of entertainment. Highlighting this at 4 P.M. on November 4th will be Kate Browne, an Illinois State doctoral student who will be giving a talk at the exhibit titled “What You Can Tell By Looking: Disability, Language, and the Power of Description.”
Browne, who has studied disabled women’s life writing, circuses, and sideshows, will describe how shunning bodily differences affects more than just the person.
Browne is just one of many draws to the sixth floor of Milner over the next couple of months. Artifacts dating the 18th century to the present will be displayed, including a ring worn by a sideshow giant and the wedding shoes of Tom Thumb’s wife. The exhibit will undoubtedly unveil an interesting, controversial, and sometimes overlooked portion of history.