A Merry Jaunt at Glenmont

Glenmont is the eastern terminus of its line, where the terrain becomes increasingly suburban and commuters park their cars in order to take the train to work. It’s also the Metro station I used in order to take a long (more than a mile, and not truly pedestrian-friendly, unless you are a brave, able-bodied, willing-to-step-in-mud pedestrian) walk to one of my Weekly Museum Visits, Brookside Gardens, and more recently, to Brookside Nature Center next door.

Both of those sites, which are museums for all of my intents and purposes, are part of Wheaton Regional Park, which also includes trails, an athletic center and ice arena, a dog park, and horse stables. The real horses at the horse stables are among some of the park’s farther-flung aspects from the Metro, but among the closest are the pretend horses on the carousel in the Shorefield Area.

This section features the Wheaton Miniature Train and Ovid Hazen Wells Carousel, a playground, and a picnic pavilions that were full of children’s birthday parties when I walked through the park a few years ago. It was only about a month ago that such birthday parties resumed after a long, Covid-fueled hiatus.

As the Onion proclaimed in February 2021, “If It Weren’t For Covid, You’d Be On A Carousel Right Now.” The satire piece describes “a gentle breeze…the smell of freshly popped popcorn…a beautiful historic merry-go-round…brightly colored lights…A calliope would pipe out ‘The Sidewalks Of New York’…an ice cream cone…a blue-maned wooden stallion.” In other words, it would be an experience of fun and joy for all the senses.

But the pandemic changed what carousels could offer – in some cases officially, by local decree or institutional closure, and in other cases because of people’s diligence in staying home to stop the spread even when amenities were open and available. In the face of a deadly and highly contagious respiratory virus, people majorly shifted to technology for everything from work to socializing to entertainment and education.

In pandemic times, the distinction between education sites (like museums and nature centers and botanic gardens) and amusement parks (or individual rides) blurred: both kinds of places would now be experienced by audiences online. I have written before about differences between amusement parks and museums, but it should be noted that, pandemic or no pandemic, there are many museums that feature a single ride such as a merry-go-round. There are also museums that are dedicated to carousel history and art, or that include parts of old rides in their collections or exhibits.

The Ovid Hazen Wells Carousel at Wheaton Regional Park is a historic object in its own right: it turns 106 this year, and from 1967 to 1981, it could be found on the National Mall – the Smithsonian Carousel, a ride among museums. In 2020 and the first half of 2021, the Facebook page for Wheaton Train and Carousel posted updates about openings, closures, and safety measures; dad jokes about trains and carousels; messages of good wishes for various holidays; and some fun facts. I learned that “there are two sides to every carousel horse” – romantic (fancy, outward facing) and domesticated (plain, inward facing). How many times in my life have I ridden a carousel, never noticing that the animals were asymmetrical?

There is still a Smithsonian Carousel on the National Mall; it’s just a different (larger) carousel now. The current carousel has an interesting history in the civil rights movement from its time in its former Baltimore location. I read about this history during the pandemic in a children’s book, A Ride to Remember. Also in the DC area is Glen Echo Park’s Dentzel Carousel with its own storied role in desegregation.

A much newer carousel in DC can be found at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The Speedwell Conservation Carousel is solar-powered and is not just horsing around in its array of animal choices to ride.

In Ohio, the Akron Zoo similarly has a Conservation Carousel, which can be “ridden” “virtually” on YouTube. The parrot’s-eye-view for the duration of the video is a bit… monotonous. I would have preferred to watch from the outside so I could see every animal make its orbit, rather than focus on just those two giraffes, lovely as they are. The real ride, of course, would have been the best option of all.

Among the most prolific examples of carousel-related online content that I could find was the Facebook page for the New England Carousel Museum. The museum has been posting frequently during the pandemic, including opportunities to learn about individual animal sculptures in its “Meet the Collection” posts.

For anyone looking to replicate at least some parts of the multisensory merry-go-round ride at home, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings produced an album entirely of carousel music. (Individual tracks can be heard on YouTube.)

Carousel at Wheaton Regional Park, photographed in 2018, back in those in-person, pre-Covid days

Glenmont is on the Red Line.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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