Circus! Science under the Big Top (Ontario Science Centre)
A new family-friendly show at the Manitoba Museum delves into the science of sword-swallowing, trick-cycling, contortionism and coulrophobia (that's the technical name for the fear of clowns). Originally developed by the Ontario Science Centre, Circus: Science Under the Big Top features 19 interactive exhibits - and some are very interactive, involving strapping on a safety harness and walking on a high wire, for instance.
The exhibit catches kids' attention with the circus theme, which is then used as a big tent to bring together information about anatomy, physiology, neurology, physics, chemistry, even a little history and linguistics. (Did you know that circus folk not only have specialized slang expressions, but also their own dialect, Parlari, which draws on the Romani language of the Gypsy people, with a little Yiddish and Cockney thrown in?)
There is an intriguing look at circuses past, from the often sad tales of famous circus animals like Jumbo the elephant and Gargantua the gorilla, to the storied summer of 1860, when two rival tightrope walkers, Blondin and Farini, outdid each other with feats of derring-do over Niagara Falls. (At one point, Blondin carried a stove on his back and then cooked and ate an omelette mid-wire.) There is also a poignant look at the people who once made their livings in circus sideshows, which ends with the pointed question: "Are sideshow performers any more 'freakish' than supermodels?"
The show is designed to work for a wide range of ages. Who Dung It?, a game in which you "deduce the species from its feces," is clearly going to grab the 10-year-old boys. Some activities are fairly sedate, involving pushing buttons or lifting flaps to reveal answers. (At one station, you're invited to guess circus smells like caramel apple, cotton candy and sweat.)
But there is a lot of active, hands-on stuff, including an area where you calculate and test "cannonball" projectiles and another where you bend a metal bar to find out whether you're a Tough Customer, a Body Builder or a Superhero. Smaller children can play around in the dress-up area, which features costumes for aspiring ringmasters, strongmen, acrobats and bears.
For grown-ups, the show is dotted with lots of fascinating little factoids. I now know that a lion's roar can rattle cars 27 metres away. And I still don't quite get flea circuses, but now I know why the mention of them makes me itchy.
All in all, this is a good opportunity for kids to learn a little basic science while having fun. My 13-year-old, who finds real circuses vaguely sad, said she liked this show a lot better.