The Museum of Carriages in Čechy pod Kosířem is the only one of its kind in the Czech Republic, taking visitors back to the days when horse-drawn carriages were the main form of transport. The collection of historic carriages, coaches and sleighs was assembled over the last 25 years and counts 100 exhibits to date. The museum specializes in carriages made and used in the Czech lands and Moravia and includes a number of rare pieces used by the nobility in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The museum’s founder Václav Obr has been fascinated by carriages since his youth. He started out restoring them as a hobby, eventually getting a license as a restorer and founding the country’s only carriage museum. He knows the story of every carriage in the museum and has a tale to tell about many of them.
“The carriages we have here were made by craftsmen from Bohemia and Moravia in the years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many were found on the territory of the Czech Republic, but some carriages ended up abroad and today we are trying to get them back. One of the first coaches we acquired and restored to its former glory was a landauer coach from the German city of Nuremberg. When we ripped out the rotten upholstery, we found a message nailed to the frame. It said that the carriage was built by Jan Vodička in Prague on Wenceslas Square No. 11.”
Today the museum boasts an impressive collection. It has the largest hearse in the world, made in the Brožík factory; over 70 historic carriages and sleighs; the largest collection of carriage lanterns in Central Europe; the largest collection of funeral carriages in Central Europe; the largest collection of bishop’s carriages and sleighs; remodelled as well as original carriages; a collection of livery, horse harnesses, and accessories. Some have pride of place in the museum.
“We have a few carriages that belonged to famous personalities. There is the carriage of Baron Ringhoffer or a carriage that belonged to the noble family Tarouca. Another piece we are proud of is the hunting carriage of Count Fantišek Joseph II. We have some great exhibits here, one that attracts a lot of attention is a carriage which was made in Brandys nad Labem for Archduke Karl, who later became the last Czech king and Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Karl I. So we have some exceptional pieces.”
So what is the biggest trophy that the museum has managed to acquire?
“I would say that all the carriages we have are very rare, because they are unique. Two identical carriages were never built. We were lucky enough to find all sorts of carriages, carriages used by the nobility and by common people, carriages in which famous personalities entered a city, carriages which drove people to their wedding day and carriages in which they made their last journey. I would point out that we have what we believe to be the largest funeral carriage ever made, a hearse from the famous company Václav Brožík. The roof of the carriage was fitted with the most beautiful symbol that unites all people, all nations - a heart, the universal symbol of love.”
Restoring some of the carriages on display took months and even years, depending on the state in which they were acquired. Visitors to the museum also get a tour of the workshop where the restoration of old carriages takes place. Václav Obr again:
“The restoration of carriages is very demanding, and we try to preserve them as far as possible. When the carriage is rotten, or has been inexpertly upholstered or repainted by later owners we start almost from scratch leaving only the bare wood and iron frame and recreate the varnishes, fabrics and accessories of the given period when it first served. If the carriage is more or less in its original condition, and at least 60% of the original materials, such as fabrics, textiles, leather, and accessories can be saved then we just clean it, retouch it and leave it as it is. These really authentic pieces are the most valuable exhibits that we have.”
Saving and preserving the work of old craftsmen is no easy task, but there are still skilled craftsmen today who enjoy the challenge of restoring historic pieces and are willing to spend hours on getting a small detail in a ceremonial or gala carriage perfect. Václav Obr says getting such a team together was one of the biggest challenges he faced over the years.
“Altogether 19 crafts are needed for repairing or restoring coaches and carriages. You need craftsmen who are skilled in working with steel, wood, textiles, leather, wicker, paints and varnishes; everything must be perfect down to the tiniest detail. And over the 25 years since we started we put together a team of the best craftsmen in the Czech Republic. In fact, I would also like to invite the public to a gathering of craftsmen held in July here in Čechy pod Kosířem. It is a popular event called the Josefkol Craftsmen’s Gathering. The name is derived from St. Josef - the patron saint of all craftsmen - and the greatest invention in the world, which is still unsurpassed, the wheel. We linked up these two words, Joseph and kolo which means wheel in Czech, and came up with the name Josefkol.”
Given that the museum was only established 25 years ago, its collection of 100 artefacts is impressive. So how does one go about finding carriages and coaches the production of which gradually ceased in the 1920s. Václav Obr says he could not have achieved it without ample help from the public.
“Getting the core of the collection together meant travelling around the country, scouring barns, stables and old buildings and talking to people who remember. Many times people helped us when the word got around about what we were doing. They would remember that a neighbour has an old carriage or interesting sled that had been parked in a barn and gathering dust for years and they would call us, give us a tip, and we'd be on our way to try to acquire it.”
In addition to rides with a coachman and footman, the museum offers demonstrations of horse harnessing. Visitors will learn about the history of the individual pieces on show as well as the development of coach traffic at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors can view a gallery of documents, plans, and photographs; and, last but not least, view the building which has housed the museum for 25 years – an old factory which made horse-drawn fire engines since 1820. The museum is open to visitors all year around, but while in the summer people can simply turn up and get a tour in the autumn and winter months they need to call and book a visit in advance.
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