Creatures on a Stick: The New England Carousel Museum

February 6, 2013 — Staring at a skewered lion at the New England Carousel Museum, I couldn’t shake the idea that carousels are weird. I’d seen a million of them, and rode my share, but I’d never thought about them before. I mean, you ride a statue in circles.

I know, I know, the rides are meant for kids, and mine loves them so much that my first black eye in a decade came that one time I told her we couldn’t ride one.

Still, there’s a reason that Ray Bradbury made them a tool of evil in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

They’re weird.

But there is some kind of magic to them that can’t be completely ascribed to the unformed and uninformed discrimination of children. Like the witch who must walk in a circle three times for her spell or the Maypole dance or the whirlpool game or Chevy Chase on a rotary. You’re not technically going anywhere, but you are going someplace.

At the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, it’s mostly about the carousel pieces, though, and not the whole contraptions. And maybe that’s why they suddenly struck me as being so strange. Never before had I been confronted with so many of them “on the loose.” Even Mary Poppins only liberated four.

According to the museum’s website, it holds one of the largest collection of antique pole dancers in the country (paraphrased). And its shish-kabobbed menagerie is certainly impressive. They’re mostly contained in a single long room, but the collection does bleed over into other areas. Each piece is a thing of gaudy, carnivalesque beauty. I could have closed my eyes and grabbed a pole at random and would’ve had no problem kicking out my living room couch for whatever pierced piece it was.

Being antiques, they’re mostly carved from wood and hand-painted. And the herds of animals are made up of more than just horses, although that was the dominant species. I also saw cows and pigs and wolves and dolphins and cats and zebras and elephants and giraffes. Even a sea serpent. If you can stab it with a pole, you can put it on a carousel.

Adding to the carnival atmosphere was a massive canvas banner hung on one wall advertising some of the freaks of yesteryear. But none of those freaks were pierced through the abdomen with twisting golden shafts. Certainly, though, I half-expected breathy organ music to be piped throughout the place.

In an adjoining room to the main exhibit hall is a small carousel that people can ride, if they can ever look at a carousel the same way, that is, and the museum also manages the100-year-old carousel at nearby Bushnell Park. So they’re not totally PETA about their animals.

The museum is located at 95 Riverside Avenue on Route 72 West, and it also houses on its top floor a function room, a Museum of Fire History, and a one-room Greek Museum of Art and History. So the place is like a carousel of museums, I guess.

And when I write a line like that, I realize it’s time to end the post.