Help the performing arts recover

Discover unique historical items and explore the wonder of circus.

Circus is deeply embedded in the history of Arts Centre Melbourne. Prior to the construction of the Theatres Building with its iconic Spire, the area was home to Wirth’s Circus for nearly 50 years before it dramatically burnt down in 1953.

As the official national archive to the circus industry, the Australian Performing Arts Collection has committed to preserving items including costumes, props, posters and photographs from many of Australia's most loved circuses, both traditional and modern.

Dive into this collection of historical objects and fascinating interviews, and enjoy exploring the bold, daring and spectacular world of circus.

 

Spotlight


Circus, slides & roller skates: before Arts Centre Melbourne

Circus, slides & roller skates: before Arts Centre Melbourne

Did you know that on the site of Arts Centre Melbourne, there were once circuses, a roller skating rink, a dance hall and even a water slide?

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Stories


40 years of circus: an interview with costume designer Laurel Frank

40 years of circus: an interview with costume designer Laurel Frank

Laurel Frank has been designing and making costumes for Circus Oz since it was founded in 1978.

While her costumes are often bold, fun and cheeky, they have to stand up to serious punishment when performers leap, slide, climb and tumble. Find out what it’s like working for Circus Oz, and how costumes help performers look so spectacular.


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Wirth's Circus Scrapbook

Wirth's Circus Scrapbook

An extraordinary object can take your breath away. The Australian Performing Arts Collection team unveil the fascinating stories and history behind the Wirth’s Circus scrapbook.


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Watch


Costume worn by Lu Guang Rong

Curator Ian Jackson shares the elaborate circus costume worn by Lu Guang Rong who brought Chinese circus techniques to Australia in 1983.

 

Objects

Explore historical circus objects in our Collection.


An Adagio on Horseback

An Adagio on Horseback

The Ashton circus family have been performing in Australia since the 1840s. Phyllis Ashton’s mother continued her high wire act until the night before her daughter was born. Phyllis went on to a lifetime career in the circus. In the 1950s and 1960s she wore this tutu to perform an acrobatic ‘adagio on horseback’ with her husband Doug. By the 1990s she had become the much loved matriarch of Ashton’s Circus.

This tutu is one of many items the Ashton family have donated to the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Tutu worn by Phyllis Ashton
Gift of Lorraine Grant, Ashton's Circus, 1982
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne


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Australia’s Wizard of the Wire

Australia’s Wizard of the Wire

Con Colleano (1899 - 1973) was the greatest tightwire artist of all time. As this poster shows, he used a bullfighter’s cape to give a Spanish theme to his act. But few in his audience knew of his Aboriginal and West Indian heritage.

Born into a circus family in Lismore, NSW, he had spent five years learning to do something previously considered impossible: a feet-to-feet forward somersault on a tightwire. In 1924 his family left for America, where he soon became the star attraction of the legendary Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He dazzled audiences with his flips, fandangos and – as a finale – the forward somersault.

Poster for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, c. 1936
Printed by Erie Lithograph and Printing Company
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne


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A Clown's Taxi

A Clown's Taxi

What better way for a clown to enter the ring than on a bicycle taxi? Especially one with its wheel hubs off-centre, so it lurches up and down as it goes along.

This bike was most recently ridden by Clumsy the Clown, also known as Frank Holden of Holden Bros Circus in the 1970s and 1980s, but originally came from Wirth’s Circus.

Frank’s grandfather Adolphus Holden hadn’t let the loss of his leg in an accident stop him from becoming a successful acrobat and founder of Holden Bros circus.

Bicycle used by Holden Bros Circus, 1970s-80s
Gift of Frank, Barry and Maree Holden, 2017
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne


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