Higgins Armory Museum

May 8, 2010 — Writers (they tell me) often face a quandary when planning a declarative statement based on their own experience or desires. They have to decide whether to phrase said statement as something that’s universally true of everyone or as something that’s uniquely true of themselves, while keeping in mind that nothing is ever really universally true of everyone or uniquely true of oneself. For instance, were I to phrase my love of ALF reruns as more or less unique to myself, I would come off looking pretty clueless (“I’m probably the only person on this planet who really digs ALF.”). Likewise, were I to phrase my love of inside-out corduroy pants as more or less universally true of everyone, I would come off looking completely out of touch (“Like most people, I like to wear my corduroys inside out.”).

As you can see, sometimes the direction on which way to frame a declaration is pretty clear cut. Other times, it’s a bit more difficult. Like this particular time. Can I assume that everyone wants a suit of armor tucked into a corner of their house? I mean, as in first-thing-I’m-going-to-do-when-I-hit-the-lottery-is-buy-one want? I’m not sure.

For me, that desire stems from a lifetime of Scooby Doo episodes coupled with long-lost-relative-bequeaths-spooky-mansion movies (yes, we've arrived at that oversaturation point in culture where every plot has turned into its own sub-genre). I assume this same path was trod by many of us, but whether yours ended in a desire for a hollow metal man in your living room, I can’t say.

At the very least, I know that this desire was shared by John Woodman Higgins. Born in 1874, Higgins was a wealthy steel magnate who was, despite his middle name, really into steel. In fact, it was this obsession (since he predated Scooby Doo) that fueled his interest in ancient metal armor and weaponry. But Higgins didn’t just settle for a single suit of armor placed just so-so in his foyer. He amassed the largest collection of ancient arms, armor, and related metalcraft in the Western Hemisphere, with artifacts spanning cultures from the Biblical to the Medieval to the Renaissance to the Oriental.

In 1930, he built a four-story building in his home town of Worcester, MA (pronounced “Wuster” if you believe New Englanders) to hold his collection, and these days that building, under the name Higgins Armory Museum, is open to the public. Located at 100 Barber Ave., the Higgins Armory Museum (or HAM, as its not called) is an eye-catching glass and steel (natch) affair with a half-suit of armor at its apex that makes it look like a centaur would if centaurs were half-building instead of half-horse.

On the first floor where you purchase your tickets is a theater and a small selection of armor and arms to whet your appetite for the impressive third and fourth floor exhibits. Besides your first glimpse of full suits of armor (both human and dog), some of the interesting objects on display on this floor are a meteorite fragment beaten into a knife and Japanese articulated iron sculptures of a dragon and a lobster from the late 1800s. The gift shop is located on this floor as well, which in a building full of deadly weapons is nevertheless still the most dangerous place to be as you’ll have to constantly dodge all the kids playing violently with the plastic swords that are recklessly displayed for sale in open bins.

The second floor houses a large open room with activities mostly designed for kids. For instance, there are various craft opportunities, games, costumes, a set of stocks to poke your or your child’s head through. I assume there are plastic swords in there somewhere, although I don’t remember getting hit by any children in this room.  Most fun is the opportunity to try on a variety of knight helmet reproductions so that you can finally learn what if feels like to lift a hinged metal visor off your face (“extremely satisfying,” is the answer).

The second half of the second floor is dedicated to temporary exhibits. Occupying the space since June of 2009 and scheduled to continue through 2011 sometime is an amazing art installation by local Somerville artist Hilary Scott entitled Beyond Belief: The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell. The exhibition was, to me, worth the price of admission by itself. In fact, I’d have dedicated a whole O.T.I.S. article to it, but they had that annoying “no photography” rule that temporary exhibits always seem to have, even though being temporary seems even more of a reason to allow photography. I really need to start calling ahead and pretending to be legitimate press so I can circumvent all that.

The conceit of the exhibition is that the titular professor, who is the fictional curator of the museum’s fictional Department of Curiosities, has been missing for decades on esoteric forays around the world. The only evidence of his whereabouts are the fantastical specimens and artifacts from various mythologies, folklore, and other stories that he continues to send back. The exhibit is set up to allow you to walk through his study and laboratory examining these objects.

Basically, the room is filled with monsters. Like every kid (see?), I went through a knights in armor phase. My monster phase, though, never ended. On display are, among other beasties, a yeti packaged in ice, a mermaid in a tank, fairies with monarch butterfly wings, skeletons of various bizarre creatures, mummies, a kraken beak, a mounted dragon’s head, a golden fleece, a harpy’s claw, the head of the Jabberwock, the Minotaur's hoof, and—a staff member had to point out to me—a medusa head reflected in a mirror to ensure that visitors aren’t turned to stone.

In addition, there are various artifacts as well, including Loki’s spear, the wings of Daedelus, Mephistopheles’ contract with Faust, a Mayan doomsday clock, and an intense-looking alternate universe Victorian-era diving suit. All the items that Scott created are extremely detailed and impressive individually. Taken all together, they make for a fascinating milieu that, well, really makes you want to take pictures. I can’t wait for his garage sale. Here is a legitimate-press article with some pics and a video if you don’t believe me.

Back to history, the crowning point of the Higgins Armory Museum, both literally and figuratively, is the upper floors, which contain most of the Higgins collection. The third floor is made up to look like the great hall of a castle with soaring ceilings, stone walls and arches, stained glass windows, tapestries, various hanging pennants and weapons, and all the metal codpieces you could ever want to kick. A giant painting of Higgins himself with a suit of armor (although unfortunately not in a suit of armor) is centrally hung in the hall.

From there, the room diverges into two wings, one dedicated to the long history of plate armor and the other to various uses of armor, including sporting events and shows.  The latter includes a pair of full-size horse reproductions, each burdened by its own fully armored knights with ridiculously long jousting poles. A few rooms off the hall contain various artifacts as a chastity belt and mortuary helmets, decorative pieces used to adorn the tombs of the honored dead.

A deep balcony of sorts that stretches the length of the hall is, I assume, counted as the fourth floor (if not I completely missed the fourth floor), and features even more artifacts, including an infant-sized breastplate, ancient Japanese armor with a helmet shaped like a spiked conch, a cross-shaped warhammer, and 2,500-year-old Corinthian helmets.

All told, it’s not an enormous collection, but it is large enough, well displayed, and worth multiple visits. Of course, if you’re like me (there it is again), it’ll make you a little sad that America didn’t go through an era of armored knights and broadswords like Europe and that our history museums aren’t populated with shiny suits that would look really cool flanking the bookshelves of my study.

And, because I had more trouble than usual whittling down the the pictures we took to an appropriate number to fit the text, here are some bonus pics. Don't spend them all in one place:

"I'm here to rescue you."