Updated closure information

4 August, 2020

 

One object, multiple stories.

The Australian Performing Arts Collection team share their stories about the Wirth’s Circus scrapbook, unveiling more of its hidden history.

 

The Curator’s Perspective: History of the Object
Margaret Marshall, Curator, Theatre and Popular Entertainment, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Sometimes an object can take your breath away. For me, this extraordinary scrapbook from Wirth’s Circus does just that. Compiled by transport manager Charles West, it’s filled with thousands of fascinating images from times gone by, and stories waiting to be discovered.

West worked for Wirth’s Circus for over 40 years during the first half of the 20th century. Australia’s leading circus at the time, Wirth’s Victorian base was the site where Arts Centre Melbourne now stands. West was clearly a prolific collector – his scrapbook has over 500 pages closely pasted with photographs, magazine clippings, postcards, programmes and sets of collectable cigarette cards. Images depict Wirth’s Circus family members, performers, animals and trainers, and their travels across Australia. You can also see visiting international circus acts alongside Australian stars of vaudeville and musical theatre.

The scrapbook was donated to the Australian Performing Arts Collection in 2015 by Mrs Barbara St Leon, a Wirth family descendant. A very large and intriguing curatorial task awaits in revealing the history that this massive volume holds!

 

Scrapbook compiled by Charles West, Wirth’s Circus, c.1905–1940s

 

Scrapbook compiled by Charles West, Wirth’s Circus, c.1905–1940s
Gift of Mrs Barbara St Leon, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Scrapbook compiled by Charles West, Wirth’s Circus, c.1905–1940s

 

Scrapbook compiled by Charles West, Wirth’s Circus, c.1905–1940s
Gift of Mrs Barbara St Leon, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Photograph of Wirth’s Circus clowns, c.1940 in Charles West’s scrapbook

 

Photograph of Wirth’s Circus clowns, c.1940 in Charles West’s scrapbook
Gift of Mrs Barbara St Leon, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Photograph of Wirth’s Circus, Hippodrome, Sydney, c.1920 in Charles West’s scrapbook

 

Photograph of Wirth’s Circus, Hippodrome, Sydney, c.1920 in Charles West’s scrapbook
Gift of Mrs Barbara St Leon, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Registrar’s Perspective: Collections Management and Storage
Heather Paterson, Registrar, Theatre and Popular Entertainment, Australian Performing Arts Collection

The Australian Performing Arts Collection acquires all sorts of objects varying in shapes and sizes – from a ticket stub to a large-scale set piece. Compared to the average scrapbook, the Wirth’s Circus scrapbook is so heavy and cumbersome, it requires two people to lift it.

When first acquired in 2015, it immediately became a star attraction in the Australian Performing Arts Collection. While it is important to share this amazing artifact, it also caused many a registrar and collection manager to break out into a sweat when it needed to be maneuvered. Thus, it became increasingly clear that there needed to be a purpose built storage and handling solution.

We engaged a specialist company to create a custom-made box with a slide out tray base to reduce handling. However, the pages still have to be physically turned to access the amazing contents.

 

Photographs of Wirth’s Circus members, c.1935 in Charles West’s scrapbook

 

Photographs of Wirth’s Circus members, c.1935 in Charles West’s scrapbook
Gift of Mrs Barbara St Leon, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Exhibition Manager’s Perspective: Exhibition Development
Jenni Meaney, Project Manager, Australian Performing Arts Collection

As an exhibition manager the task of showing the much loved Wirth’s Circus scrapbook in the Celebrating Circus display was both exciting and daunting. The huge scrapbook would be displayed open – but this meant you could only see two pages. We decided to make an interactive digital display to let the visitor delve a little further into the treasure trove of images.

Photographing the selected pages was a complicated task requiring specialist object handlers and lots of pillows to support the fragile book. Once the images were captured we worked with Mecca Medialight to program the display so you could ‘turn through’ the pages.

 

Staff prepare the scrapbook for photography and adjust the image to get the best results

 

Left: Arts Centre Melbourne staff prepare the scrapbook for photography.
Right: The image is adjusted to get the best results.

 

To display such a large and fragile object we commissioned a custom mount to support the book so pages could be on view.

 

The custom-made adjustable mount supports the displayed scrapbook

 

The custom-made adjustable mount supports the displayed scrapbook.

 

The home page for the interactive display

 

The home page for the interactive display.

 

Wirth’s scrapbook on display with the touchscreen

 

Wirth’s Circus scrapbook on display with the touchscreen.

 

The Conservator’s Perspective: Materials and Construction
Carmela Lonetti, Conservator, Australian Performing Arts Collection

The biggest challenge for the scrapbook is balancing the need to make the images and stories accessible while preserving the physical object. Preservation of the scrapbook has started with discovering as much as possible about the materials used to make it and its construction. X-ray imaging will be used to enhance understanding of how the metal binding secures the pages together.

Each page will be assessed so that vulnerable objects can be identified and stabilised. Central to the preservation of the scrapbook is digitisation of each page. As noted above, only a few pages have been digitised for exhibition purposes.

We will work with specialist paper conservators and a book binder on a system to temporarily unbind the scrapbook - releasing each page for conservation treatment and digitisation.

 

View of the scrapbook from the bottom edge and front page with dimensions

 

View of the scrapbook from the bottom edge and front page with dimensions.

 

Page towards the back of the scrapbook revealing metallic bands binding through slits in the linen gutter guards

 

Page towards the back of the scrapbook revealing metallic bands binding through slits in the linen gutter guards.

 

We’re looking forward to continuing work with this wonderful object and sharing more of its content with visitors in the future. In the meantime you can explore more related content at the below links.

Find out more about the history of Arts Centre Melbourne’s site.

Find out more about the Wirth’s Circus Collection.

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

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