Massachusetts medievalists (and history scholars and enthusiasts) are losing a tremendous resource at the end of this year with the announced closing of the Higgins Armory in Worcester. The announcement, made officially on Friday, ends a long period of financial uncertainty for the museum, but begins a new uncertainty about the future of the Armory’s holdings. The plan unveiled by the Armory’s acting executive director will see the majority of the Higgins collection moved to the Worcester Art Museum (though about 500 pieces, most of them deemed not to be of display quality, are being auctioned off later this month by Thomas Del Mar Ltd., a subsidiary of Sotheby’s of London). Less certain, at least from what I’ve been able to learn so far, is whether the WAM is committed to the same sort of gleeful interactivity that has made the Armory such a joy to visit over and over again.
Like many medievalists within driving distance, I’ve taken students to the Armory many times over the years, and an independent visit to the museum has stood as my (only) offer of extra credit in my medieval survey course. I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve stood in the great hall and tried to decide what to look at first. I’ve had various favorite pieces over the years–a beautiful suit of chain mail with words from the Qu’ran etched on the individual links; a collection of jamadhar (Indian punch-daggers, popular in the 16th-17th centuries); a reproduction suit of boarhound armor kitted out onto a model that looks suspiciously like an oversized Jack Russell Terrier (a.k.a. “Wishbone”). But the overall effect of the museum is greater than any one of its exhibits or pieces, and I’ve cheerfully wandered for hours through its holdings and been transported.
On the other hand, part of the Armory’s charm is the way it interprets its mandate to house and exhibit arms and armor creatively and playfully (see, for example, their 2011 display of reproduction armor from the Star Wars universe, thus giving the universe the glory of, well, pictures like this).
My favorite experiences at the Armory, however, have come from bringing students there and enjoying their explorations of the museum’s offerings–from the jousting exhibits to the try-on-some-real-armor presentations (I still have a picture somewhere of a shocked but rapturously happy student wearing a heavy breastplate during one of these classes) to the student-friendly curators and guides to the building itself, a 1920s art-deco fantasy castle/monastery curiosity purpose-built by the (perhaps slightly eccentric) John Woodman Higgins to house his remarkable collection. Currently, it’s not clear what will happen to the building–it’s on the National Register in its own right, so it will probably continue to exist, but whether it will still be open to the public is anyone’s guess.
I’ll update the blog with more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, if you’re within a day’s drive of Worcester, do yourself a favor and make the time to go see the Higgins Armory in its current setting before the end of 2013.