HE & me

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Jack Grove

Vanessa Toul­min is re­search di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Fair­ground Ar­chive at the Univer­sity of Sheffield, where she is di­rec­tor of city and cul­ture in its Of­fice of Part­ner­ship and Re­gional En­gage­ment. Pro­fes­sor Toul­min will host a talk, ti­tled “Sis­ter­hood of the Ring”, on the role of fe­male circus per­form­ers, in Sheffield on 21 Novem­ber as part of Be­ing Hu­man: A Fes­ti­val of the Hu­man­i­ties. The fes­ti­val, led by the School of Ad­vanced Study, Univer­sity of Lon­don, in part­ner­ship with the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Coun­cil and the Bri­tish Academy, will host hun­dreds of free events across the UK be­tween 15 and 24 Novem­ber

Where and when were you born?

The Win­ter Gar­dens fair­ground in More­cambe, Lan­cashire, in 1967.

How has this shaped you?

Ev­ery­thing I do in academia I learned from the fair­ground. It taught me how to col­lab­o­rate with oth­ers, gave me the con­fi­dence to man­age re­la­tion­ships and strike a good deal. It also, sadly, taught me how to face prej­u­dice and how peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of you are marked by their per­cep­tions of your back­ground.

Did you ex­cel at school?

My school years were marked by low at­ten­dance, low ex­pec­ta­tions and bul­ly­ing. But I ap­plied – and was ac­cepted – to univer­sity [in Sheffield] de­spite my school telling me to lower my ex­pec­ta­tions and go to a polytech­nic.

What kind of un­der­grad­u­ate were you?

I was a wild party girl – ar­chae­ol­ogy is the rock ’n’ roll of the arts, and we par­tied hard and worked hard. There was a small, rau­cous group from which nearly all of us went into his­tory, her­itage or mu­se­ums, thanks in large part to my depart­ment, [which was] egal­i­tar­ian, aca­dem­i­cally on top of its sub­ject and cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for its grad­u­ates.

What di­vided your life into a ‘be­fore’ and ‘af­ter’?

I’d been in­vited as an ar­chae­ol­o­gist to dig in Jor­dan, but the first Iraq war broke out in 1991 so it was im­pos­si­ble to get there. At the same time, my favourite un­cle in Wales died, and my mother asked me to go and look af­ter my aunt on the fair­ground. I was 25 and drift­ing along, but I had a Da­m­a­scene mo­ment re­al­is­ing that I had lost all the his­tory of my own fam­ily be­cause my un­cle was il­lit­er­ate. I re­turned to univer­sity, was awarded a Win­gate schol­ar­ship, then a full PhD schol­ar­ship, and set up the Na­tional Fair­ground Ar­chive as a post­grad­u­ate – and the rest is his­tory.

What’s your most mem­o­rable mo­ment at univer­sity?

My most mem­o­rable oc­ca­sion in the eyes of my col­leagues is prob­a­bly my pro­fes­so­rial lec­ture in 2009. I had bur­lesque per­form­ers, la­tex-clad sword swal­low­ers and a troupe of 6ft in­sects demon­strat­ing the links be­tween films and early en­ter­tain­ment. There were no com­plaints apart from one from a mem­ber of the au­di­ence, who ob­jected to my use of the word “in­ter­me­di­al­ity”, claim­ing that be­cause it was not in the dic­tio­nary, that I had made this up.

What is the Na­tional Fair­ground Ar­chive’s im­por­tance?

It has been fun­da­men­tal in high­light­ing the im­por­tance of the trav­el­ling fair­grounds and circus in the story of en­ter­tain­ment and so­ci­ety. It has been im­por­tant in le­git­imis­ing our life­style in the eyes of non-Trav­ellers be­cause it was seen as wor­thy of be­ing pre­served and stud­ied.

How has your back­ground in­flu­enced your teach­ing method?

I come from an oral tra­di­tion. Books were pretty ab­sent, so you learned ev­ery­thing in your head – my mem­ory is my great­est as­set. When I lec­ture, I never use notes – I tell a story or nar­ra­tive and seek to chal­lenge but en­ter­tain.

Last year, ‘The Great­est Show­man’ be­came an un­ex­pected Hol­ly­wood hit. Does its suc­cess in­di­cate a re­newed in­ter­est in the circus world?

That film has no re­la­tion to circus his­tory, but it has in­creased in­ter­est in mu­si­cals and in the life and leg­end that was P. T. Bar­num, so

that can only be good. The circus has never stopped be­ing an es­sen­tial and glob­ally im­por­tant part of our en­ter­tain­ment world. There are more circus com­pa­nies than opera com­pa­nies in the UK to­day, but no­body asks if opera has a long-term fu­ture. You can see circus in the West End, the fields of Glas­ton­bury and the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val, or in your vil­lage or lo­cal park. What other art form is as adapt­able and moveable?

There are more circus com­pa­nies than opera com­pa­nies in the UK to­day, but no­body asks if opera has a long-term fu­ture

Women are of­ten seen to play sec­ond fid­dle to men in the circus world. Is that likely to change?

Circus was and has al­ways been a place where women were as much cen­tre stage as the men. Some of the great con­tem­po­rary cir­cuses have in­cred­i­ble women in charge or [work­ing as] cre­ative di­rec­tors, such as Ali Wil­liams, for­merly of No Fit State, Vicki Ame­dume of Up­swing and Carol Gandy, who did the in­cred­i­ble Spirit of the Horse. Re­search has also shown that fe­male per­form­ers in par­tic­u­lar in the 19th cen­tury were paid as much as, if not more than, the men.

Do you live by any motto or phi­los­o­phy?

My fam­ily have so many mot­toes. “Never turn your back on a snake” is one, and “never stoop down with­out pick­ing some­thing up” is an­other. Some are more use­ful than oth­ers, and some are just plain daft but make me laugh.

If you weren’t an aca­demic, what do you think you’d be do­ing?

Run­ning the Buf­falo Bill Cen­tre in Cody, Wy­oming, the Black­pool Win­ter Gar­dens, or a fan­tas­tic fair­ground some­where.

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