The collection at the Higgins Armory Museum, which will close December 31.

Credit: Higgins Armory Museum

Higgins Armory Museum to Close, Transfer to Worcester Art Museum

March 8, 2013

The Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, a bastion of many a boyhood dream and fantasy, announced today that it will close on December 31st.  Founded by industrialist John Woodman Higgins in 1931, the Armory is a treasure trove of more than 2,000 pieces including “major examples of arms and armor from medieval and Renaissance Europe, Ancient Greece and Rome, Africa, the Middle East, India and Japan” according to the museum’s website.  

A suit of armor on view at the Higgins Armory Museum.
Photo Credit: Higgins Armory Museum

But faced with insurmountable fiscal challenges including an Art Deco building sorely in need of facilities upgrades, the Higgins board of directors voted this month to close the venerable institution—long the destination of New England area school groups and medieval enthusiasts. 

“It became clear that the museum’s business model was not sustainable any longer,” said Interim Director Suzanne Maas.  “The reason for that is the size of the endowment.”  Left with just $17,000 when Higgins died in 1961, the museum has an endowment of $2.9 million today—well short of the $15 million Maas says is needed to run the Higgins Armory.  “There wasn’t enough time to turn about the institution and to rebuild an endowment.” 

The Higgins collection is considered one of the top three best arms and armor collections in the United States on par with those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Maas, who took hold of the museum in 2010 with an interim management team tasked with assessing the organization’s health, says it was a top concern to keep the collection in Worcester. The “highest priority is the long-term stewardship of this amazing collection.  It is a treasure, it is part of Worcester’s heritage,” she said. 

Thanks to a flurry of negotiations and agreements, the collection indeed has a new city home: the Worcester Art Museum where a transfer of assets will occur in 2014.  “To keep [the collection] here was not only a no-brainer because of its quality, but also because of the emotional attachment,” says museum director Matthias Waschek. “But also think what message it would send out about a city that is reinventing itself to,  at the same time, let go a major collection.  It would just catapult us back ten years, maybe 15 years to say…'We didn’t have the stamina to keep that collection.’”

Matthias says early plans for the Higgins collection include mounting a major exhibition in WAM’s largest gallery.  The show will consider the arms and armor in the context of the museum’s own holdings including antiquities, a 15th century Spanish ceiling and its Renaissance portraits.  “It gives us an opportunity, when we get this collection…to rethink arms and armor in the 21st century,” Waschek said.  “To rethink the amazing artworks that say something very interesting about the centuries of cultural protection.”  File under: White Knight. 

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