Higgins Armory Museum to close
March 12, 2013 9:46 AM   Subscribe

Worc. Telegram: "Higgins Armory Museum to close after 82 years; Collection to find home at WAM; END OF AN ERA" The Higgins Armory in Worcester, Mass., will close on Dec. 31, 2013. Uncounted children will be saddened, as will modern swordsmen, when most of the museum's programs -- from educational "OverKnight" sleep-overs to the Academy of the Sword -- will come to a halt. Until then, though, the planned events will run full-tilt through 12/31/2013.

The nation's second-best arms & armor collection -- and "the only dedicated museum of armor in the western hemisphere, housing one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside of Europe" -- will have to close down at the end of this year for financial reasons. It was unable to build its endowment, and has spent down its existing monies at too great a rate (including the expense of maintaining the gorgeous Art Deco building's bright glass-and-steel exterior).
Higgins Statement: http://www.higgins.org/integration-worcester-art-museum
Worcester Telegram article: http://www.telegram.com/article/20130309/NEWS/103099931/0/FRONTPAGE
For decades, the Museum has offered local schoolchildren & Scouts the opportunity to spend the night in the Museum. Education programs, special tours, hands-on projects, and a "knighting ceremony" draw the children into the collection, and having Miss Kim demonstrate the protective power of chain mail simply blows their mind.

As well, the Museum hosts the Academy of the Sword: workshops, classes, and regular training for historians, enthusiasts, and even children. Indeed, the museum now offers a video display built with footage of Viking combat re-enactors demonstrating techniques and weapons.

The Museum is very forward-looking: the collection is available in an online database, and they run an annual fund-rasier called the Festival of Ale featuring many regional brewers.

But all is not grim: Museum programs will continue until the building on Barber Avenue closes, including the Siege The Day! Trebuchet Contest and traveling outreach programs.

While you still can, take a trip to the Higgins Armory and see the life-size jousting knights, clap eyes on thousand-year old weapons, and have your picture taken giving the hand-and-a-half-sword a heft.

Not Pepsi Blue: I have no affiliation with the museum aside from many fond memories, including spending the day before my wedding there in the company of my Best Man.
posted by wenestvedt (40 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
One last link: they have a really surprisingly good Facebook page, too, at https://www.facebook.com/higginsarmory
posted by wenestvedt at 9:50 AM on March 12, 2013

So sad about this. I've been looking forward to the day I could take my son there. He's only 2.5 now and we will probably visit before the end of the year, but that would be more for me than him. I figured 7 would have been the ideal age for Maximum Armored Fun.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:53 AM on March 12, 2013

NOOOO! I brought my then 4-year-old there and once in the main hall he grabbed the camera and shouted "THIS IS MY KIND OF PLACE!"

Have to visit again before the end.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a crying shame - one of the first dates I went on with my wife was a trip to the Higgins Armory, and we got a full tour from a friend of my sister's, one hell of a poet and a very knowledgeable museum curator. They have so much there apart from knights in armor - a ten foot tall fowling piece comes to mind: a flintlock shotgun with a barrel like a municipal waterpipe, set in a beautiful wood and brass stock, like it was used in a revolutionary war for giants.

This is a sad blow to New England cultural heritage, and will be missed.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:59 AM on March 12, 2013

I'm sad for the kids in central MA - this was a top-notch field trip destination. If I still lived there, I'd be lining up one last visit.
posted by 27 at 10:01 AM on March 12, 2013

Oh man, this is one of the best things in Worcester. Had a great field trip there during college; an old college friend got married recently and that was the pre-wedding meet-and-greet venue.

If you're within day trip distance of Worcester and you haven't been and you like swords and armor and shit at all, get your ass out there.
posted by cortex at 10:02 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The basket made from a laquered armadillo is no longer on display (I was told that it's on one of the directors' desks), but the dog-in-armor made it into the lobby!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:02 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh man, this is one of the best things in Worcester.

Dude, it's the only good thing in Worcester.
posted by Trace McJoy at 10:07 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, the art museum is also nice, BUT STILL
posted by Trace McJoy at 10:08 AM on March 12, 2013

There are lots of nice things in Worcester.
posted by helicomatic at 10:10 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Total bummer. It's been a few years since I last visited. It's one of my favorite museums. I guess I need to plan a couple more visits before the end of the year.
posted by ruthsarian at 10:11 AM on March 12, 2013

pssh. There is a ton of good beer and food and art here in Worcester.

That said, I'm really sad that the Higgins is closing. The collection is being integrated into the Worcester Art Museum, but it won't be quite the same.
posted by xbonesgt at 10:13 AM on March 12, 2013

Aww...we did a family trip there growing up and thought it was pretty awesome.
posted by Captain_Science at 10:24 AM on March 12, 2013

The Worcester EcoTarium is pretty fun too, take the kiddies to both.
posted by waitingtoderail at 10:25 AM on March 12, 2013

It's the most UNIQUE thing in Worcester, not the only good thing there. My son (age 7) was nearly in tears when I broke the news to him this weekend. I think it's a rather poor reflection on the citizens of the city that they can't find enough donors to keep it running. It will definitely be missed.
posted by inthe80s at 10:29 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was saddened by this. I always take my kids there when we're in Worcester.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:40 AM on March 12, 2013

This is so sad. Growing up nearby, we took school field trips to the Armory often, and they were always hotly anticipated by us kids!
posted by Aubergine at 10:44 AM on March 12, 2013

You know, I think that all new England MeFites ought to do a Meetup there. Jessamyn, you're a librarian -- can't you devise some sort of smokescreen about "examining the collection" or some such?

Phone ahead and see if they will put on a show of some kind for you and then go out on the town: the volunteers who do the OverKnights should be invited just because they probably have a million good stories!

I have friends living nearby who report good restaurants & drinks are available. ("Flavor Town Quinsigamond"?)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

I have a basket made out of an armadillo! I really do!
posted by Man-Thing at 11:04 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

A tragic loss. It seems unreasonable that our affluent society can't support such wonderful things, etc.
I will definitely be visiting there again soon. Ill be wearing my MeFi colored bandana. ;)

I think it was the fifth grade or so - our school field trip - and Ive certainly never forgotten it.
posted by Abinadab at 11:05 AM on March 12, 2013

We went a couple of years ago, and I have a bunch of pictures posted on Flickr from that day. I never got to see it as a kid, when I'm sure I would have liked it even more, but I'm glad I didn't miss out entirely and that my daughter got a chance to see it.
posted by briank at 11:05 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is too bad. I have great pictures of my kids dressed up the children's throne room. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have a picture of my grandma in the throne too! We used to live about 20 minutes from Worcester. We always found plenty to do there.
posted by Biblio at 11:14 AM on March 12, 2013

Sad subject, but a great post!

I'm really sad to see the Higgins close, but ultimately it's probably for the best to have the collection in the hands of the Worcester Art Museum and their much healthier endowment and a new push on to dramatically increase attendance. The collection will also be much more accessible to out-of-towners now that it won't be in such a challenging location to find. The building, though...it's going to be tough to watch it slowly deteriorate, and I just don't see how it will be redeveloped.

Also, I would be SO DOWN for a meetup at the Higgins. I could even help coordinate!
posted by rollbiz at 11:18 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I would be SO DOWN for a meetup at the Higgins.

I'd go. I've only been to the Higgins once, but it was awesome. It's a real shame to see it go.

“The trustees’ decision to transfer the collection is driven by the inescapable reality that excellent programs and strong attendance alone, without a significant endowment, cannot sustain Higgins Armory as an independent institution,”

That's a depressing reality. Glad I'm not in the museum business. Can't imagine how frustrating it must be to have great attendance and a really cool museum and...it just ain't enough, because you're not already sitting on a giant fat stack of cash.

I'm glad at least that the Worcester Art Museum is going to be taking the collection and the whole thing's not going to end up getting split up or sold off piecemeal to private investors.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:24 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's good that the collection isn't just going into a box in the attic but what's going to happen to the building? It's a stunning piece all by its lonesome. Please tell me someone has plans for the building. If you see it at night, I swear to god it's a real life Thief level.
posted by cheap paper at 11:29 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

mstokes, one of the articles talks about museum auctions for pieces that are not actually on display, which is a "responsible" way to handle a collection: the idea tat if you aren't showing it and can't justify why you still have it then find someone who does want it. And I *think* I agree with that.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:41 AM on March 12, 2013

I've never been, but I've always made sure to catch their demonstrations at cons that I've been to. I'll have to try to go this year I guess.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:54 AM on March 12, 2013

the idea tat if you aren't showing it and can't justify why you still have it then find someone who does want it. And I *think* I agree with that.

No, I disagree - one of the museum's missions was to preserve artifacts and provide access to historians, social scientists, artists and other scholars or educators who needed them for their work. Without the complete collection intact, its cultural value is damaged beyond repair - it's not just the photogenic stuff that has worth, and that worth is not best expressed in dollars and cents at an auction.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:17 PM on March 12, 2013

mstokes, one of the articles talks about museum auctions for pieces that are not actually on display, which is a "responsible" way to handle a collection: the idea tat if you aren't showing it and can't justify why you still have it then find someone who does want it. And I *think* I agree with that.

Hrmm, didn't see that line, not crazy about that myself; I think it makes a difference whether the buyers for the pieces are museums/institutions or private collectors. It's one thing to ship it off to a museum that has room to show it off; it's another thing to sell it to a private collector so it can be a conversation-piece for private parties and only a couple dozen people will ever see it for the next 50 years.
posted by mstokes650 at 12:32 PM on March 12, 2013

Approximately only 1-2% of a museum's collections are ever on display at once, so the idea of jettisoning pieces that aren't shown all the time doesn't really work. There is a process for formally removing pieces from a collection - lots of paperwork, board approval, etc, and it can be a VERY BAD public relations thing even if handled correctly, but you're supposed to put the money back into collecting, not into the roof or salaries.
posted by PussKillian at 1:02 PM on March 12, 2013

There have been a lot of articles about the controversy of museums selling off collection materials in the news in the last few years; this article from the WSJ in 2009 does a pretty good job of laying out some of the issues. Here's one from the NYTimes in 2010 on the Atwater Kent deaccessions.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:05 PM on March 12, 2013

Well, the armadillo basket was a crowd favorite, but the curators just couldn't make a real connection between it and their mission & other artifacts. (I talked to two of them about this item in particular a few weeks ago during a Cub Scout OverKnighter.) It's the only animal, for example, and the only basket -- and while they kept it for sentimental reasons, it wasn't really central to their work.

Mr. Higgins was a keen collector, but he did have some plain crap and a lot of random stuff.

Worse, if too many of their items are not cataloged or can't be preserved or don't have provenance or are impossible to handle safely or have some other reason that they can't be used by researchers or curators or the public, then maybe they aren't in the right place.

(My friend does accessions of books for a state historical society, and I am keen to discuss this with her. She has an acquisitive streak, but she's also constrained by budget. :7)

But I get this is tricky: last year at this time I got to go though the "behind the scenes" tour of the National WWII Museum -- white gloves and all! -- and they had TONS of random stuff. Some of it, the curator freely confessed, they just sort of owned and couldn't really make good use of, WRT education, history, or whatever. But people donated it, and they had it ever after. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2013

Yeah, sometimes it's important/powerful/wealthy donors giving a group of things, and not allowing an institution to say no to any of it - all or nothing. Sometimes it's curators or directors with eccentric ideas or no desire to turn anything down. Or a museum may change its focus and suddenly stuff doesn't apply but you still have these things in storage. And getting rid of them is fraught with difficulty because people take offense to the idea that you don't want their stuff.
posted by PussKillian at 1:37 PM on March 12, 2013

Maybe they should try a Kickstarter campaign?
posted by newdaddy at 2:23 PM on March 12, 2013

Maybe they should try a Kickstarter campaign?

Unfortunately, I think the number they need is an extra $12 million dollars in cold hard endowment money. A historic building and a limited endowment are not a sustainable mix, which is a shame, because it sounds like this was a great collection with tremendous outreach programs and educational staff.
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:15 PM on March 12, 2013

Maybe they should try a Kickstarter campaign?

What is frustrating to us locally (and particularly in the reenactment community, which has had a good relationship with Higgins) is that they were very quiet about their endowment problems (not silent, exactly, but they certainly underplayed it) until the announcement of the sale to WAM came out.

I honestly think that had they mounted a real, nationwide capital campaign they could have raised the $12M (and really, maybe twice that amount). They did run a (failed) capital campaign a few years ago, but it was done very quietly. I'm not sure if there are other "behind the scenes" issues (certainly the building needs attention) that make closure more advisable than a capital campaign, but it's certainly disappointing that they didn't try harder to raise the funds rather than closing.

This article describes Susanne Maas as a "transition specialist", and a glance at her public Linked In info seems to indicate she didn't have much experience in the niche market that Higgins occupies. They've been talking to WAM for at least two years (the article says "since 2011") -- in that time, they could have raised the money instead of dealing with a merger. But it's too late for that now.

Also, I'd feel better if either a) WAM was keeping the building, or b) the curator at WAM didn't make statements to the press like "When you look at Renaissance paintings, we have lots of people in armor." (cite) I would have thought the curator at WAM would have spent at least some time in the past two years really educating himself about the place that arms and armor have in the world of fine art museums, but apparently not.
posted by anastasiav at 5:33 PM on March 12, 2013

They've been talking to WAM for at least two years (the article says "since 2011")...

Funny you should say that, because I also noticed that line but I don't remember hearing anything before this.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:56 PM on March 12, 2013

Woostah deserves better.
posted by buzzman at 10:12 PM on March 12, 2013

Yeah, it's a damn shame, and a problem facing pretty much any institution with a huge old energy-inefficient building. I'm sure their endowment took a huge hit in 2008... and I have no idea how the place had been run in the years leading up to this point, but it's pretty common for long-standing boards to just maintain the status quo and watch the money dry up. Kudos to them for at least making this extremely unpleasant decision now and keeping the most of the collection in Worcester and available to the public, instead of just hanging a CLOSED sign on the door in a couple of years and disappearing completely.

One of the articles I read mentioned that the Art Museum plans in the next couple of years to repurpose/redecorate some of their space into a more Higgins-like configuration befitting the collection, so that's something.
posted by usonian at 6:55 AM on March 13, 2013

Wow. My younger stepdaughter's class will be the last one to take this trip as seventh graders. Sad.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:44 AM on March 13, 2013

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