Lately there have been some items in the news regarding carousel art, and not in a positive light. The most recent concerns a horse with a Confederate flag carved on its side on a carousel made and installed in the late 1990s at a zoo in Saginaw, Michigan. This is one of two Civil War themed horses. Public protest had been the reason given to have the horse in question removed from the carousel until further notice. What will ultimately happen to the piece is pending at the time of this writing. (www.minbcnews.com/news/story.a…)A few months ago another carousel, this time an historic one over a century old, was under scrutiny for a painting on one of the rounding boards- the upper panels that surround the top part of a carousel. The painting shows a cartoonish, unflattering rendition of two black children frightened by a large rooster. Virtually unnoticed for all these many decades until now, the painting came under scrutiny when a woman posted a blog about it, putting it into the limelight. Several people have since protested, demanding that the painting be taken down or painted over. For now anyway, it will remain on the carousel as there would be a process to get it removed because the carousel is a registered historic landmark. www.rochesterhomepage.net/stor…
Carousel imagery has been under fire before. In the mid-1990s, the big, beautiful four-row Parker carousel (currently in storage) at the Jantzen Beach Center Mall in Portland Oregon underwent a full restoration. The horses were taken off, stripped of their paint and refurbished, restored and repainted. But one pony held a surprise. What had at first appeared to be crosses carved into the trappings turned out to be Swastikas, which someone years ago had carved off the arms and painted to look like crosses instead. Since the carousel and its horses were created well before Nazi Germany came to power, the Swastikas clearly were not celebrating Hitler. The symbol had previously been used in Native American artwork and at that time had no negative connections, and as such it was decided to restore the symbols on the horse to their original condition. However, public outcry demanded that the horse be forever removed from the carousel. Photos of this horse are hard to come by now, but one can be found here, if you scroll down toward the bottom of the page: columbiariverimages.com/Region… I do not know where this horse is at this time, or who has possession of it.
I find this trend disturbing. Now let me be clear, in no way, shape or form do I condone racist thinking. I strongly believe that regardless of a person's skin color or national heritage, we are all human and all equal. I take people as individuals, not as one race or another. There are good and bad in all races. Therefore I condemn racist symbols and statements in every facet of life.
That being said, I do not like how carousels are beginning to feel the heat when in most of these cases, the artwork in question was not ever created to offend. The exception here might be the painting of the children, as clearly the style they were drawn in was meant to belittle black people; although when it was made most likely no black person was close enough to it to ever see it, due to the sad fact of segregation that kept most of them out of public places where a carousel like that one would be operating. While I understand and sympathize with those who find offense, I do not believe in re-writing history. Removing or destroying these items breaks up the historical significance of the carousel as a whole. Plus, it does nothing about the issue of racism.
How far do we take this? Many antique carousels have nude or semi-nude female figures adorning horses and other animals, or on the chariot sides and/or band organ facades (carousels were not originally made for kids!!!). Do we strip these off to protect the sensitive eyes of the children who ride? Nobody seemed concerned for the last hundred years, so why do anything now?
I know of one certain carousel, an antique, that has a few horses with decorative carvings on them that easily could cause offense in today's overly PC society. If nobody has complained already about a couple of horses in particular, I'd be surprised. I can easily imagine the symbols on these two horses causing a public backlash if attention was given them, either causing the removal of the horses in question or else keeping them on the carousel and making people angry. Even I am uncomfortable with these particular horses, but don't want them removed nor altered. Why? Because they are historic, and I'm pretty sure the carver who made them did not mean to offend. The symbols may have had another meaning at the time these horses were made, or at least they didn't have the negativity surrounding them that they do today. When I visit this carousel, I could choose not to ride either of those two horses, or I could ride them. It makes no real difference. When the ride is over, they stay on the carousel- they aren't following me home.
I will not say where this carousel is to protect it. The other carousels that have received scathing criticism lately only did so because someone pointed them out. Had nobody said anything, most likely there would still be no controversy. I want to protect this other carousel by NOT calling attention to it. Someone else may, and I can do nothing to stop them if they do, but I do not want to be the cause of its (or its "offensive" horses) demise. Far too many antique carousels have been destroyed or forever split up for various reasons. The relatively few originals that still remain are treasures. They ought to be protected, not "altered" into oblivion. Rather than removing or changing what we now find offensive, we should instead learn from it. If it was actually meant to offend, we can condemn the intent, shed light on it, and vow never to do that sort of thing again. If it was not intended for offense, we can appreciate the original design and feel sadness over innocence lost.