D.C. Diary: Ride of a Century

March 31, 2000
Union Station Main Lobby
2:15 p.m.

I was sitting in my cubical at work the other day when I overheard my boss and another co-worker talking about a carousel exhibit at Union Station. My boss described it as a shrine to the last century, proclaiming you have to go see it and calling it incredible. On my lunch break I decided to head over to Union Station to see what she was raving about.

Positioned right in the main lobby of Union Station was The Turn of the Century Carousel: A Carousel Celebrating 100 Years of Ups and Downs in American Culture. In place of horses were 30 different colorful and inventive objects representing celebrities, icons and events from the past century.

The carousel spins and plays music while all of the sculptures move up, down and around. The music relates to the individual pieces on the carousel and includes little sound bites from the past century. All of the sculptures have the ability to be ridden upon like traditional carousel horses, but in an effort to preserve the works visitors are not allowed to hop on for a ride.

Pieces on the carousel include Elvis swinging his hips, Albert Einstein’s head with his theory of relativity spinning above it, Marilyn Monroe over an air vent with her white dress flying up around her, a fork that rises and falls into a Swanson’s TV dinner and Andy Warhol’s head peeping out of a Campbell’s tomato soup can.

With images of Madonna pushing a baby carriage, Forrest Gump sitting on a bench with a box of chocolates and the head of Howard Stern with his tongue sticking out to provide a seat, even the 1990s were represented on this carousel.

More than 2,000 sketches were submitted by students and alumni of the 3-D design program at The School of Visual Arts located in New York City, which created the carousel. From those designs, 30 were chosen and created. The sculptures are made from fiberglass and foam, and an overall continuity of the pieces was achieved by stylistic guidelines. The creators were limited to certain colors and had to maintain smooth, sculptural curves on all the works. Carousel experts had predicted the full renovation to take a minimum of three years, but the School of Visual Arts team was able to finish the whole project in less than six months.

Carousels were at the height of their popularity in the 1890s and early 1900s, but less than 300 are known to exist today. The Turn of the Century Carousel is one of the highest in the world, standing 36-feet high and 42 feet in diameter.

As part of the exhibit, The History Channel, A&E and Biography have created four timeline walls that can be found near the carousel. Each timeline wall represents 25 years of history and uses text, images and video to explain more about the exhibit.

The trip to Union Station for this exhibit is worth your while. The iconic images of the past provide a nostalgic trip through time, packing reminiscent moments of the past century into a short but unforgettable ride.

The exhibit will be at Union Station until April 13.

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