The Milner Library at Illinois State University is home to one of the world’s largest collections of circus items, boasting thousands of books, historic posters, programs and photographs. And thanks to a massive donation, the university’s trove of circus relics recently got a whole lot larger—and more sparkly.
As the Associated Press reports, a retired school librarian by the name of Herbert Ueckert collected memorabilia for decades, and the result, some 250,000 items, he has gifted to the Milner Library’s Circus and Allied Arts Collection. Among the donations are clown props, candid photos, publicity photos, artists’ sketches of promotional posters and performers’ costumes.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many spangles and feathers in my life,” Maureen Brunsdale, the library’s head of special collections and rare books, says in a statement. “It’s fantastic.”
After researching various institutions, Ueckert decided to donate his tremendous stash of items to the Milner Library because he wanted students to be able to access the collection.
The library says it has big plans for his donation. “Students in Family and Consumer Sciences can explore the construction techniques of historic costumes, the School of Theatre students can study the performer contracts and publicity stills, School of Art students can examine original poster art,” Brunsdale explained.
The library is also hard at work making its collections available to the general public. As Lauren Young reported for Smithsonian.com last year, Milner has launched a three-year project to digitize more than 300 historic circus route books, which recorded performance details and personal anecdotes about life beneath the big top. You can also peruse a digital collection of photographic slides from circuses in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
The Milner’s special collections staff hopes to design new exhibits centered on items from the recent donation—and in the Illinois State University press release, Brunsdale expressed excitement about one item in particular.
“We have a jeweled elephant blanket,” she says. “It is enormous, as you can imagine, and gorgeous. People need to see it.”