Under the Big Top: An old metal toy story

When working with historical objects, few items evoke more excitement than those that represent childhood.

It is hard not to feel a flood of nostalgia and wonder when coming across a faithful old bear loved from years of play, or when working to preserve the remnants of a game used over and over again for generations. It is quite difficult to refrain from touching or playing with old toys again! Sometimes people who visit the Ashburton Museum ask, “why are the objects behind glass cases?” The short answer is: safety.

Bringing back the circus

To bring Rex Hockings’ miniature circus back to the Ashburton Museum as part of our previous 2021-2022 summer exhibition, the staff had to take every possible precaution. Old metal toys have many conservation challenges associated with them. Many are made with lead solder and lead based paints. Over time, lead corrodes. Corrosion occurs through a combination of time and dramatic changes in the environment.

Placing objects within glass enclosures creates a micro chamber that helps to maintain a stable environment for objects within. When there is existing degradation, tiny specks of lead made airborne can get into one’s eyes, be breathed in or be accidently ingested. Lead is a poison, which is the main reason why this circus is behind glass.

From chaos emerges order

Time and storage are additional reasons why the objects are behind glass. To get the circus ready for the show, the museum team had many tasks to do. Have you ever been told to put all your toys away, and did so by putting everything willy-nilly back into the toy box?

When pulling out the circus miniatures from their storage containers, we found that the pieces of various toys were all mixed together. Hours were spent identifying what things were and matching them with their respective parts. To save us this hassle in the future, a numbering system was devised to label each individual tiny piece and a packing up plan was created.

Next, armed with brushes 1-3mm in diameter, the museum collections team set about gently removing any grime and dirt from the objects that had accumulated throughout their years of storage. The tricky part was cleaning the objects without removing any loose paint or aggravating the rusted parts. Once all the animals, caravans, entertainers, fire buckets and rides had been thoroughly but gently cleaned, it was time to set up the show!

Work or play?

In preparing an exhibition there is always an element of ‘play’ involved. Spending hours getting to know an object, discovering all of its moving parts and secret compartments; it’s inevitable that a small part of one’s inner child begins to run wild. Imagination is a wonderful thing.

My favourite object on display was a wee red fire bucket. If you looked closely at the scene we had arranged, you could imagine the circus workers filling the buckets with water and placing them in various spots around the tent. Spectators would begin to fill the seats under the big top and the show would start. The clowns would warm up the crowd with their crazy antics, the trapeze artists would demonstrate amazing feats in the air, and there would be a juggler and acrobats walking on stilts. The shows were captivating and thrilling.

Once your attention was completely drawn to the stage, an element of danger would arise when it was time for the ringmaster to bring out the lions. The beasts would roar with a full set of white glistening teeth. They would parade around the ring proudly showing off their glorious manes of hair and demonstrate their fearlessness by jumping through rings of fire.

While your eyes were fixed on the show, men from the circus crew would have taken their positions standing guard next to the fire buckets, ready to quell a potential fire or tame a wild beast. If all ended well, the show would be completed with a parade around the ring. As the performers would wave and smile while wishing you a safe journey home, a hat would make its way around the crowd for spectators to show their appreciation for the entertainment of the night. When the tent was finally empty, all that remained were the rows of seats, the centre circle and several fire buckets.

By Natalie Liverant

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 18 December 2021.


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