Museum of Science and Industry Set to Auction Off Huge Collection of Circus Memorabilia

An auction house is helping to sell off a museum collection of figurines that once symbolized “doing the impossible.”

The auction of circus memorabilia features pieces from a long-term exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. Officials hope that by selling some of the memorabilia, they will allow fans to experience “the greatest show on earth” from the comfort of their own home.

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“I think one of the reasons why the circus is so inspiring is that it pushed what we thought our limits and our abilities were,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and head curator. “These circus performers were doing things that you wouldn’t imagine could be done unless you saw them.”

The massive miniature circus collection initially consisted of 22,000 figurines. Created by Chicago rail worker Roland J Weber, it’s said to have taken three decades to complete.

“In 1920 when he started, you can imagine, people didn’t have television, they might’ve had radio. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities for entertainment, especially if you lived in a small town,” McCarthy said. “So a circus coming to town with thousands of people, exotic acts, just spectacle must’ve been game changing.”

Auction items for sale include several motorized dioramas that portray acts performed by hand-carved acrobats, clowns and animals. Other interactive elements reflect how the circus also served as an educational tool when it came to town.

“The circus is an incredible industry. It employed thousands of people. It used innovative business models and it often introduced new technology to its audiences,” McCarthy said. “Our mission here is to inspire the inventive genius in everyone … There’s a real reason people wanted to run away and join the circus.”

Despite the ingenuity the circus brought at one time, that’s since changed. That’s why the Museum of Science and Industry is saying goodbye to its collection in an upcoming auction at Potter and Potter.

“While the circus has been a really incredibly wonderful exhibit, it’s inspiring … it’s a nostalgic look back at a circus that doesn’t exist today,” McCarthy said.  

Other circus auction items include pieces from the Zweifel collection, consisting of nearly 500 additional pieces. With the museum planning to use the auction earnings to acquire new artifacts, they say they want those new pieces to embody the same message as the circus.

“Through the auction, we hope that this miniature circus will continue to inspire others …  Circuses today they’re different from what you see here, but they still provide that moment of inspiration, awe, spectacle that really kind of can drive us forward,” McCarthy said.

Potter and Potter’s circus collection auction is Saturday, Sept. 24 at 10am. For more information, visit

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Note: This story will be updated with video.

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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