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A Third Time Around for Two Carousel Horses

Museum History



Meet Woody and Old Paint, two historic carousel horses, who have recently taken up residence in the Ryan Learning Center.

Beyond their sweet gazes and long faces, you’ll notice something quite unusual about these museum objects—their condition. Layers of peeling paint peeling reveal previous surface coatings, wood discoloration, and splitting and warping.

Copy Of 2023 Aic Carousel 4

This is surprising, as the Art Institute takes great care to ensure that artworks appear in pristine condition. While Woody and Old Paint are historic and rare, they do not belong to our collection as works of art. The story of their imperfections reveals the crucial role of conservation scientists in museums, who study, care for, and protect objects over time.

Where did they come from?

Not much is known about the early life of five wooden horses given to what was then known as the Department of Museum Education 60 years ago. They had already seen a good deal of action as carousel horses and came to the museum in poor repair. They were cracking and peeling; many had lost or replaced parts. Woody was stripped entirely of his colorful paint. Another horse had been cut in half. Even so, they still had their playful poses and sympathetic expressions that no doubt delighted the children who once rode them. 

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They were likely created in the early 20th century, when carousels became a prime attraction in amusement parks and carnivals across the country. The best carousel horses and menagerie figures were produced by companies like the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Herschell/Spillman, and the Gustav A. Dentzel Carousel Company, the manufacturer of the Art Institute’s Middle Row Jumping Horse (Carousel Figure) currently on view in the Arts of the Americas galleries. 

These companies employed skilled carvers who gave their animals distinct personalities through decorative embellishments and animated poses and expressions. Some carousel horses seem to strain against their bridles as they leap through the air. Some give furtive, sidelong glances. Others proudly prance as if in a parade. The two featured in this installation are inside row jumpers, and with the slight tilt of their heads and sweet gazes they would have caught the eye of spectators as they rotated counterclockwise around the circle.

Put out to pasture

In the early 1960s, they left their carousel lives behind and were given to the Art Institute to be a part of the inaugural installation in the brand-new Junior Museum, which opened in 1964. The Junior Museum included an assembly court, a large special exhibition gallery, an auditorium, a library, a studio, and a picnic room. It was in this room, where visiting school children ate their lunches, that the horses were installed in an arrangement reminiscent of a carousel, along with an array of floating fish and artwork made by young people on the walls.

Over time, the horses were installed in various configurations. In 1991, just before the museum opened the former Kraft Education Center, the horses were placed in storage and all but forgotten. An email in summer 2022 from a museum security manager, who was curious to learn more about the horses he had seen in storage, sparked an interdepartmental conversation about what to do with the horses. Clearly, they were in poor condition, but they were just too interesting to part with. An idea took shape: these horses, in their deteriorated condition, provided the perfect opportunity to explore how materials change over time and what museum conservators do to preserve and protect artworks for future generations. 

Working as a team

Like most projects at the Art Institute of Chicago, this installation was made possible by bringing together teams across the museum. Ryan Learning Center staff made visits to the Conservation and Science labs, observing conservators at work, talking with them about their practice, imagining possibilities for interactive multigenerational engagements, and translating their complex scientific processes into family-friendly language. Under the mentorship of Sam Grassi, senior exhibition designer, college intern Claudia Flores created the schematics for a modern display carousel, outfitted with a custom circular desk for visitors.

Around this time and with great affection, we named the horses Woody and Old Paint.

Objects conservator Lisa Ackerman took weekly trips to storage to assess and stabilize Woody and Old Paint for the next phase of their lives. Colleagues from our Collections and Loans department mapped out a route to bring the horses down from storage, leading to a safe and timely delivery of the freshly treated, display-ready horses to the Ryan Learning Center.

This project, the culmination of a multiyear National Science Foundation grant, opened in 2023 in the Ryan Learning Center’s Trott Family Gallery. Called “Art + Science: Horse of A Different Color,” this interactive learning installation introduces audiences to museum conservation techniques and processes. Visitors can explore how we care for art objects through a range of hands-on activities:

Want to learn more about conservators and what they do at the museum? Check out these videos. We invite budding scientists, carousel lovers, and the ever-curious to explore this unique installation, on view through June 2025.

Learn more about things to do in the Ryan Learning Center.

—Robin Schnur, Woman’s Board Executive Director, Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Learning Center, and Maura Flood, Director, Creative Spaces and Special Projects, Ryan Learning Center

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. OISE 1743748.



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