One of my favorite museums is the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto because the whole building focuses on one thing: shoes.
It’s not that I’m a shoe person; it’s that when it comes to museums, I love learning the history of something very specific. I like a museum that stays in a narrow lane.
That is why I was thrilled to learn that the New England Carousel Museum — a museum that is devoted to carousels and nothing else — is just a few hours away from Boston, in Bristol, Conn. There are horses, art, history, music, and interactive experiences, all revolving around one revolving thing. Pun intended.
Technically, at this point, I’ve been waiting years to go to this place. In 2019, I told my friend — young adult author Sara Farizan, who loves things that are nostalgic and playful — that we should drive to Bristol to see the museum. We started planning for a 2020 trip, but then the pandemic began.
It wasn’t until this fall that it seemed right for us to go, and I’m so glad we waited. After the last year and a half, it felt thrilling — blissful, really — to ride a carousel together in Connecticut.
But let me back up.
If you’re going visit the museum from the Boston area (or anywhere that’s more than a few hours from Bristol), you might want to stay at a hotel for one night. Why? Because the New England Carousel Museum is actually multiple museums in one building, and down the street there is yet another narrowly focused museum, the American Clock & Watch Museum.
That’s where we started.
I learned about the Clock & Watch Museum by googling the Carousel Museum. (They do their best to promote each other.) The museum is as described, a haven for clock enthusiasts (watches are less important there for now, but museum director Patti Philippon says more watches in the collection will be on display in the future). There are 2,500 clocks in the collection, 1,500 time pieces of all kinds on display, and many of the clocks have Boston-area roots. (Not just Waltham, I swear.)
Highlights included some nice pocket watches (it was fun to see the time pieces get smaller and smaller throughout the rooms), a small area that focused on how watches were marketed, and an alphabetical fact-finding route for kids. There’s some information there about the labor history related to clocks — who made them, who sold them, and why the trade wasn’t always fair. All of this is good for fans of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation.
Not surprisingly, my friend Sara, the nostalgia fan, liked the room with the novelty clocks. I did, too. There was an E.T. alarm clock and a Porky Pig watch. It’s a big ‘80s vibe in there.
I did realize pretty quickly that I was on borrowed time (pun intended) at the museum because the ticking clocks — oh yes, they tick! — were not helping my anxiety. If those noises, which include dings and dongs, make you feel like you’re late for something, plan to stay for an hour tops. (I actually loved the sounds for a bit, but depending on the room and tones, I had my limits).
After we left, we were off to the Carousel Museum, the main attraction! We were the only ones there on a Thursday afternoon, which meant we got special treatment from Cate Mahoney. She’s on the board and has volunteered there for 30 years. I asked if she’s always available for tours, and she said when asked, if she’s free, she’s happy to lead a party through the building. She does a fun thing where she asks where you’re from, and after you tell her, she’ll tell you if there’s a working carousel where you live. She almost always knows the answer, partly because there aren’t many working carousels.
Even without her personal guidance, we would have learned a ton about the history of carousels, how they used to be more like thrill rides, why certain artists began to bedazzle their horses.
I was interested to learn that two of the most famous carousel businessmen were Stein & Goldstein, also known as Brooklyn-based artistic carousel manufacturers Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, who left Russia for the United States and went from carving ladies’ combs to carving large wooden horses.
No relation, by the way. If there is and I haven’t been told, I would like my Goldstein carousel inheritance, please.
Mahoney says there are probably about 200 horses and other carousel animals in the building. I asked, and she does have a favorite.
“I’m particularly fond of the donkey. He’s a large donkey with the big ears. He was made in France.”
A very cool part of the museum, which you can catch for an extended period of time, was a look at the work of Jeffrey Briggs, who designed and built the carousel on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway.
I’ll admit, I didn’t expect there to be a working carousel in the building, but when Mahoney took us to the back room and we saw it, I wanted to jump on. Honestly, after learning so much, it felt special to pick a horse, listen to very loud carousel music played by a 1920 band organ machine, which sits nearby, and just ride. Best to do that at the end.
I mentioned that the Carousel Museum is a bunch of museums in one building. It’s 90 percent carousel-focused, but the structure also houses the Fire Museum and Greek Museum, the last being a room of reproductions established by a Greek heritage group in the area. Those rooms don’t take long to tour, and are especially interesting, I’d imagine, if you’re a Connecticut local.
That night, we stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Bristol, where at the restaurant, surrounded by heat lamps, our masked server told us that yes, Bristol might be known for the massive ESPN campus down the street, but the clock and carousel museums are just as famous, at least locally. She said her dad’s first job was cleaning the clocks. He was 10. If you grew up there, it would have been a field trip.
We returned the next morning to our Boston-area realities. No flying horses. No music. Only the regular ticks and tocks in our brains.
I had a Globe deadline. Sara, meanwhile, had to work on a draft of her next young adult novel, which is about a haunted pinball machine.
I haven’t told her that I’ve been googling, and that there is a new Pinball Hall of Fame museum in Las Vegas. The website says it’s “nothing but pinball for 25,000 square feet.” Sounds like a very specific plan for 2022.
New England Carousel Museum 95 Riverside Ave. Bristol, Conn., 860-585-5411. Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; Admission: adults, $8; seniors and students with ID, $7; children 2-14, $5; free for children under 2.
American Clock & Watch Museum 100 Maple St., Bristol, Conn., 860-583-6070. Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission: adults $8; seniors $7; students 6-17 or with college ID, $5; free for children 5 and under.