New England Carousel Museum

Located in Bristol, CT, the New England Carousel Museum holds one of the largest permanent collections of carousel animals in the United States. The museum explained the history of carousels, demonstrated how carousels animals were constructed, and highlighted modern carousel creators. As a bonus, the museum had a working carousel inside the building. The museum lives in a former factory, so navigation of the building was a little tricky.

The first floor contained a ticket booth and a gift shop carrying a range of carousel memorabilia, including ornaments, CDs, and postcards. A long, narrow hall to the right of the entrance explained the early history of the carousel and the major styles of carousel horses carved in America. The next stop was the main hall on the first floor. Five or six sections of carousel animals filled this space with binders which described the origin and style of individual animals in each section. Signage around the exhibit floor encouraged visitors to ask questions about the exhibit, with the option of receiving a QUEST packet (Questions for Understanding, Exploring, Seeing, and Thinking) at the main desk. According to the signage, “QUEST questions were developed by Project MUSE as part of Harvard’s Project Zero.” Another sign acknowledge that Greater Hartford Arts Council partially sponsored the museum’s educational programs.

Palomino carousel horse with a green saddle
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Gray carousel horse with pink roses on the saddle
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Carousel buck (male deer) with a colorful saddle
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

Around the corner from the main hall, tucked behind the museum office, was an exhibit with pieces from The Freels Collection, which were donated by Larry Freels upon his passing in 2020. Freels had spent forty years collecting more than 175 carousel animals. This collection contained one-of-a-kind animal figures in top condition, including a turkey, seal, tiger, billy goat, and centaur who looks like Teddy Roosevelt. This area of the museum was also home to a pair of carousel organs looking for donations to get repaired.

Plain, cream-colored carousel billy goat wearing a saddle
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Brown carousel centaur whose human half looks like Teddy Roosevelt.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Carousel organ in a wooden case with thirteen horns, two drums, and a cymbal
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Carousel great blue heron with a green and gold saddle
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

On the opposite end of the main gallery, a hallway led to three different exhibits. Straight ahead was the working carousel and a player piano. The moving animals on the carousel supports people up to 160 pounds, while the benches have no weight limit, allowing visitors of all sizes to enjoy the ride. Bearing right led to an exhibit on modern carousel designers featuring animals from the Greenway Carousel at The Tiffany & Co. Foundation Grove, part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA. Designed by Tufts University alumnus Jeff Briggs and painted by Massachusetts native William Rogers, this amazing carousel features fourteen handcrafted wild animals found in Massachusetts. My favorites were the lobster and peregrine falcon. Additionally, the carousel is ADA compliant, allowing anyone to ride it regardless of ability.

Model and blueprint of a carousel lobster
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Model and blueprint of a carousel peregrine falcon
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

I used a short flight of stairs to access the second floor, and an elevator was located nearby. The large events room on this floor was rentable for birthday parties, family reunions, weddings, and other events. The carousel animals make a fun backdrop and photo opportunity for guests. Also on this floor is an adorable collection of miniature carousels and models. An added bonus, or a bizarre addition, were The Museum of Fire History and The Museum of Greek Culture. Tucked in the corner of the otherwise lovely space are a collection of old firefighter related equipment and a fake Greek temple with a few busts. These were donations to the museum, with the story of the Fire Museum spelled out more clearly than the Greek Museum.

Shrunken model of a Greek temple constructed inside a factory building
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett
Pair of firefighter uniforms standing in front of a wall-sized black-and-white photograph of firefighters underneath a sign reading “The Museum of Fire History”
PHOTOGRAPH BY Abigail Epplett

The museum was surprisingly accessible. Around the exhibits were signs for CRISAccess, a branch of the Connecticut Radio Information System “provid[ing] human-narrated audio exhibits and walking tours with [a] free mobile app that integrates GPS and QR Code technologies”, according to the website. The informative narration was perfect for families with children, the blind and visually impaired, and anyone with museum fatigue from reading too many signs.

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Abigail Epplett

Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.