By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Founded as a nonprofit educational organization in 1990, the New England Carousel Museum once rented 10,000 square feet of space on the first floor of a hosiery factory building on Riverside Avenue, owning one carousel horse for its collection.
Today, 25 years later, the museum has not only grown its carousel collection, but also has expanded its building, which the nonprofit now makes its permanent home. The museum has also grown its educational programming and fundraising events, becoming a destination spot for visitors in and outside of Bristol.
“In its infancy, [the museum] was at a small space in this building and owned one carousel horse, said DeMars, who was one of the original board members of the museum.
“Today, we own the building, which is a major accomplishment and we are filled to capacity.”
This Saturday, the museum will celebrate its 25-year milestone during its Mardis Gras event, which will begin at 7 p.m.
Louise DeMars, executive director of the Carousel Museum, said the 25th anniversary will be incorporated as a year-long celebration, so every major event that takes place there will emphasize the 25-year milestone, including the ACE (Art, Cultural and Entertainment) Award event.
“We’re going to basically supersize everything to accommodate the milestone year,” said DeMars, adding how the museum holds over 50 events a year. “We’re taking the special events (the ones that are considered to be fund raisers), and basically supersizing those to have them highlight the fact that we’re 25 in this community.”
The Mardis Gras celebration will include a variety of entertainment, including a performance by the Bristol Old Tyme Fiddlers, wine and bourbon tasting, dancing, wheel of fortune, and more.
As visitors enter the museum, they will notice the national-known attraction is filled with carousel collections wall to wall. This is just one of at least several major accomplishments DeMars said she is proud of as director the Carousel Museum—the increase in the number of collections displayed.
“We’ve had this enormous growth spurt over the past 25 years,” said DeMars, who has previous experience working in museums. “That’s a major time commitment and that’s a huge feather in our cap.”
“It’s been years of ups and downs…but it certainly has smoothed out and I think the growth of this organization and the striving for excellence has paid off.”
For DeMars, acquiring the full-size working carousel in 2012 for visitors turned out to be another major accomplishment she took as a surprise, adding how the attraction brings a whole new level of hands-on experience for anyone walking through the museum.
“I didn’t expect that to happen in my lifetime,” said DeMars. “Here we have this wonderful carousel donated to us that…was going to fit in our building without having to add a wing to this building.”
In 1998, the museum received state funding to make the Riverside Avenue building its permanent home. This further allowed the museum to grow and expand its educational programming and to create more community events.
“This is ours,” said DeMars, who wrote the two grants. “We were, until that time, tenants of this building, and to have participated in creating a permanent home for the Carousel Museum in Bristol is wonderful. I love this building.”
As the Carousel Museum evolved, the nonprofit has focused on expanding its building. In 2000, the first floor expanded into three new galleries: an exhibition on the History of the Carousel and two fine art galleries. One art gallery shares the art of Glo Sessions, a local artist with international reputation who allowed the museum to create a show of her work. Since then, the museum has exhibited more than 60 art shows that include fine art, photography, wood carving, and more.
Upstairs, the ballroom was kept “as is,” used for renting space for events like weddings, bar mitzvahs, wine tastings, receptions. From the time DeMars encouraged the board to keep that space available for rent, the museum has consistently been booked for a variety of events. All of those activities give the nonprofit an opportunity to generate more income.
Currently, the board voted to call that space the “Bristol Room.”
DeMars said that part of the building gives the museum an opportunity to acquire more visitors while providing a space for entertainment and social gatherings.
“In today’s day and age, museum attendance is not what it was,” said DeMars, adding how the museum also is booked for birthday parties. “[People] don’t have the kind of leisure time they had once a long time ago.”
In addition, the second floor of the building features The Museum of Fire History, which opened in 2002, and showcases fire equipment and memorabilia donated by Carlyle Barnes. Adjacent to the fire museum is the Museum of Greek Art and History, along with the expansion of the Museum Restoration Department, which has helped generate income for the nonprofit. Over time, the building also became completely ADA compliant, as the new second floor entrance provides special needs accessible restrooms and a special needs ramp to the second floor.
Overall, DeMars said she is proud of “the level of excellence” the museum has managed to achieve.
“We always strive for excellence,” said DeMars. “I think we’ve accomplished it.”
The Carousel Museum receives an average 13,000 visitors a year. Although the museum receives a number of visitors from outside the state, DeMars said the goal also is to attract more Bristol residents to get involved with the nonprofit, especially with volunteering. DeMars recalled how some residents report having seen the museum for the first time when a relative visiting from afar asks to visit the destination spot.
“We are a destination—it’s Bristol that needs to embrace us,” said DeMars, adding how the museum can use all types of volunteers, including carpenters, grant writers, marketing volunteers, and committee members as well as board members.
In 1999, the museum expanded its mission of “preserving and protecting antique wooden carousels and carousel pieces,” when it was approved a contract to manage and run the Bushnell Park Carousel, which turned 100 years old last year. Created in 1914, the carousel has 48 horses, two chariots, and a Wurlitzer band Organ.
DeMars said that accomplishment also came as a surprise.
“We gave it our best shot and could not have been more shocked,” recalled DeMars. “This was a huge new experience for us.”
Besides aiming to preserve and protect carousels, the museum also has dedicated itself to educating youth through a variety of hands-on educational programming. DeMars said the addition of various staff members played a role in the growth of the museum’s educational programming, which incorporates the Common Core State Standards.
Educational programs there also encourage students to examine the art and history of the carousel while discovering the meaning behind the American amusement.
A few years ago, the museum received a grant to have a full-time education position. Today, Andrew Miller is the head of education and oversees all of the educational programming. Kate Mahoney, who was the original head of education, now serves as a subject specialist for the museum.
“Education…was probably one of the most important steps we took,” said DeMars. “We started creating exhibits that were properly displayed and labeled. We started a major training program for tour guides so they imparted…accurate information and presented it in a manner that was pleasing.”
Looking ahead toward the new projects this year, DeMars said the museum will focus on a number of capital improvements, including raising funds for a new roof, a new air handling system that will bring air conditioning, and window replacement. Those new windows will be energy efficient. The museum also plans on a redesign of its entire lighting system, which is currently in the works. DeMars added she also would like to see the parking lot resurfaced, with the addition of electricity outside to light the front of the building at night.
“All of these capital improvement projects are huge,” said DeMars. “We certainly have accomplished an awful lot in 25 years, but there’s still a way to go…there’s always a next project around the corner.”
DeMars said the museum is in the middle of an annual appeal, and anyone interested in making a contribution to the appeal is welcome to do so.
Mardis Gras at the Carousel Museum will take place this Saturday from 7 to 11 p.m. at the museum, located at 95 Riverside Avenue. Tickets, which are $50 per person, are on sale at the Carousel Museum. For more information, call the museum at (860) 585-5411 or visit www.carouselmuseum.org.