The academic ringmaster strikes a very fine balance

A Sheffield professor's fairground past helps her draw crowds to her research, writes Olga Wojtas

January 1, 2009

Roll up, roll up for the greatest inaugural lecture on Earth! Marvel at "Professor Vanessa's 20 Performing Wonders", featuring burlesque beauties, dancing pigs, a sword swallower and unicycling jugglers.

The most recent inaugural lecture at the University of Sheffield, a sell-out within hours of being advertised, was not in the traditional academic mould. But then, neither is Vanessa Toulmin, the first person to hold a personal chair in early film and popular entertainment, and the founder and director of the National Fairground Archive (NFA).

She grew up in a family that worked on fairgrounds across the north of England. Every summer they would travel, staying with relatives, and the young Vanessa would work on the dodgems, the waltzers or the candy-floss machine.

"I was underage, but I was tall for my age," she said.

"When I was a child, I wanted to leave the fair and run away to university. Now I have come full circle, and work happily in both worlds as an ambassador for my academic community and also for my fairground family through the work of the archive."

Books were her companions during her time on the fair. But despite being well read, she loathed school and frequently played truant. She was the fifth of six children in an extended family with a partly deserved reputation as hellraisers. Professor Toulmin was written off by most of the staff at school, but she made a deal with an inspirational teacher that if she got the requisite grades, she would be put in the university stream.

Her family, who expected her to go out and earn a living, were aghast to discover that she wanted to continue studying. She applied to Sheffield because it was where her teacher had studied and it was cheaper to live there than in London.

She was the first in her family to go on to higher education, and her view of university life came from reading Thomas Hardy. "I thought people sat around drinking tea, eating toast and talking about literature. But everyone just wanted to party."

Working on the fair meant she was more mature than most other students, and she already knew how to cook, handle money and work hard. "That wasn't a culture shock. The culture shock was that people didn't come to the university in the first place to learn."

Professor Toulmin graduated in archaeology, but her plan to do research in Jordan was scuppered by the first Gulf War and the death of an uncle in England.

Instead, she went to look after her aunt, working with her on the fair and assimilating its history. That led her into a PhD on the social and oral history of travelling show-people from 1890 to the present.

"I got loads of money to do it because I hustled. Everything I learnt on the fair, I've applied to academia. She created a database of 1,000 funding sources, which she then sold.

During her first year as a postgraduate, she set up the NFA, based in the special collections section of Sheffield's library, and has brought in £1 million in funding.

"The members of staff are employed by the university and not reliant on grants. That, I think, will be my lasting achievement," she said.

Professor Toulmin's research is internationally recognised, but she still praises Sheffield for being bold enough to promote her.

"You've got to give the university credit. When people meet me, they can't believe I'm in a Russell Group university. I've had fantastic mentors who have supported my work."

She has published a book, Pleasurelands, on the travelling fair industry, and her next book will be on the international impact of entertainers such as Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum. "Globalisation didn't start with Coca-Cola but with the American showmen who played to millions of people. You got British showmen who pretended to be Texan cowboys."

The NFA is a unique resource for researchers, not only in fairgrounds, but also in the history of popular entertainment in general. Its own major projects include research on the Edwardian showmen Mitchell and Kenyon, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Professor Toulmin collaborated with the British Film Institute, dating and contextualising film that had lain unseen for more than 70 years. The nitrate negatives were rediscovered by a local historian in Blackburn, a find described by film historians as the cinematographic equivalent of Tutankhamun's tomb. Professor Toulmin was also a historical consultant for the BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon.

"That really showed me that public engagement is better than being in an ivory tower," she explained.

Several artists with whom Professor Toulmin worked during an AHRC knowledge-transfer project with Blackpool Council reappeared to take part in her inaugural lecture. They included the Danger Boys, Marisa Carnesky and the Insect Circus, and Miss Behave, one of the only female sword swallowers in the world.

"My idea of public engagement is far more out there than some of my colleagues'," Professor Toulmin said.

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