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Goodbye to the Higgins Armory

On friday we did our long planned last trip to The Higgins Armory in Worcester which closes this evening forever after 83 years. What can I say. Even writing this, I can feel tears coming to my eyes at the prospect of this gem disappearing from the world.

When most people were looking through our D&D blue box set and Players Handbook and wondering what the differences were between glaives and guisarmes and halberds or what exactly was composite armor, they had to go to the library and find a book about medieval arms or a good encyclopedia or dictionary and look it up. I didn’t. I just nagged my mother to bring me to the Higgins where I could not only find out, but look at the real thing. Even handle some pieces. The Higgins is only about a mile from where my grandparents house once stood. I think I’ve been there five or six times that I can remember, but it might have been more.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, there was once a pleasant madman named John Woodman Higgins who, along with his father, started The Worcester Pressed Steel Company. Mr. Higgins was, shall we say, very much into metal, and he built a museum dedicated to anything made of it. There was a car, an all metal plane, and various other objects. But most importantly there was a huge collection of medieval and renaissance arms and armor capped off by a statue of a medieval hunting dog complete in boar hunting armor.

He built an insane building to house this collection that’s a testimony to the Ghostbusters’ quote that “the architect was either a certified genius or an authentic wacko.” Most strangely, while the outer building was made of steel and glass (one of the first), once you entered the Grand Hall, it was as if you were in a great cathedral or castle.

He was a genius in creating the museum. A genius in creating the collection. But a wacko in lack of a decent endowment ($17,000 — an amount at the time more suitable to a child’s college fund than a museum) and that the museum building was designed without any concept of the importance of environmental control in preserving ancient artifacts.

I remember being told that the collection was second only to the Royal Armory. That may have been because much of what was originally displayed when I saw the museum as a small child were actually reproductions and that some suits had been creatively assembled from parts that had no business being matched to one another. A museum docent explained that this is why there doesn’t seem to be quite as many full suits as some of us remember from our childhoods. Even after this was sorted out, it was (well for 3 hours and 48 minutes IS) still a huge collection, the second largest in the country, and the only dedicated museum of armor.

I think the rising popularity of D&D, Lord of the Rings, and so on probably gave the museum a second life it might not have had. Unfortunately, with the issues with the building and a lack of a large endowment, the museum has lost money for years. When we visited, I saw one guy in a fatigue jacket, complete with a logo from the Imperial Forces from Star Wars, another in a cloak, and another dressed head to foot as the Fourth Doctor. It looked more like the floor of a con than the floor of an art museum and I’m not sure the museum ever really came to grips with the balance between the nerdly crew that were its biggest fans and the notion of it as a historical museum. I can’t help but wonder if a more creative outreach might have made those of us who remember it more aware of the issues and possibly saved the museum, but now it’s just too late.

Thankfully, the collection won’t be liquidated. The museum is merging with the Worcester Art Museum, an institution with a far healthier endowment, but a fraction of the visitors. I guess it’s up to those of us who remember the Higgins to hold their feet to the fire and make sure that the collection ends up being displayed in the manner in which it should be and not just a sidenote. I have to say that I’m more than a bit fearful that they’ll neglect it rather than making it the defining centerpiece of their collection that it should be.

I put up an album on flickr, which has some of the highlights. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to add a bit more to it as I process the photos in Lightroom.

Goodbye Old Friend.

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