The Higgins Armory Museum was a non-profit museum located in Worcester, Massachusetts, dedicated to the display of arms and armor. It was "the only museum in the country devoted solely to arms and armor" and had the second largest arms and armor collection in the country from its founding in 1931 until 2004, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The collection consisted of 2,000 objects, including 24 full suits of armor. The museum closed at the end of 2013 due to a lack of funding. Its collection and endowment were transferred and integrated into the Worcester Art Museum, with the collection to be shown in a new gallery slated to open in 2015. The Higgins Armory building was sold in December 2014. The historic structure is believed to be one of the first buildings in the U.S. constructed solely out of steel and glass.
John Woodman Higgins was a prominent industrialist in Worcester, Massachusetts who owned the Worcester Pressed Steel Company. He traveled to Europe multiple times throughout the 1920s where he collected arms, armor, and other steel items. One of his most important purchases was eight full suits of armor from the collection of George Jay Gould in 1927. Originally, he stored these items in his house, which quickly filled with anything that he could find made of steel, from suits of armor to automatic shoe polishers. Higgins incorporated his collection as a museum in 1928; the collection grew larger than his house could hold, so he began construction on a steel and glass museum building next to his factory in 1929.
"The Museum of Steel and Armor" opened on January 12, 1931 with a grand gala. Music was played by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Higgins' sons dressed in suits of armor. In its original layout, the museum displayed a wide variety of objects constructed of steel including "medieval weaponry, automobile parts, and even ... an all-steel airplane suspended from its ceiling." Admission to the museum began with a walk through the armor exhibits and ended with a tour through the production lines to see modern steel manufacturing. The production floor was accessed through catwalks connecting the factory and the armory. Higgins invited visitors to the museum across these catwalks, and he also invited his workers to visit the museum on breaks to get inspired. Higgins died in 1961, leaving the museum a US$17,000 endowment.
The museum was first accredited in 1972 by the American Association of Museums and continued operations through the closing of the Worcester Pressed Steel Company in 1975. On January 4, 1978, it was the victim of a theft of arms and armor worth over US$100,000. 1979 saw the museum change from a private foundation owned by the Higgins family to a public-supported charity. At the vote to incorporate under a public board of trustees, the incorporators turned down offers by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to purchase the collection, as well as an offer of a merger with the Worcester Art Museum.Another offer to purchase the collection came in 1985, this time from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It too was turned down. The new museum board rewrote the mission statement, closed the exhibits on modern steel manufacturing, and devoted the museum entirely to ancient and medieval arms and armor. By refocusing the collection, the board created the only museum in America devoted purely to arms and armor. The Higgins Armory lost this title in 2004 with the opening of the Frazier Historical Arms Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Higgins Armory began facing fiscal issues during the beginning of the 2010s due to a dwindling endowment and inability to raise enough revenue to balance its budget. Deficits at the museum ranged between almost US$1,000,000 and US$500,000, draining the already small endowment to US$2,900,000. In order to shore up the endowment, the board voted in July 2012 to deaccession more than 500 objects, with the proceeds being put directly into the endowment. The museum's interim director Suzanne W. Maas stated, "This is simple housekeeping," when asked about the deaccessioning. "We have 10 virtually identical examples of troopers helmets. Do we need 10, or do we need seven?"
With the endowment still shrinking, a vote was taken by the trustees in November 2012 to integrate the museum into the Worcester Art Museum. The vote passed and it was announced in March 2013 that the museum would close at the end of that year. Maas stated, "There is not enough long-term support, and I can say I am very gratified that the trustees have made the tough decision and did not draw it out." The museum closed on December 31, 2013, and now its entire inventory as well as its endowment have been transferred and integrated into the Worcester Art Museum, located less than three miles away. An exhibit of highlights of the Higgins collection is on view, and the art museum will renovate its current library to house the collection permanently. The new gallery is slated to open in 2015. It is still unknown what will be done with the Higgins Armory building.
The Higgins Armory Museum building was constructed between 1929 and 1931 specifically to hold Higgin's collection of arms and armor in a museum setting. The four-story Art Deco building was designed by Joseph D. Leland of Boston, Massachusetts. The steel-framed building with large expanses of glass cost more than $300,000 to construct, and is believed to be one of the first buildings in the U.S. constructed solely out of steel and glass.
The building is L-shaped, with the corner chamfered. The entrance is located on this chamfer, and a large decoration of a half suit of armor sits on the roof above it. The exterior consists of visible steel pilasters decorated with oversized rivets, dividing sections of glass windows along the sides of the building. A decorative band of steel runs above the first story windows, and a row of large medallions decorates the cornice. Originally, the first two floors of the building were for offices, while the upper two housed the museum.
The main hall inside the building stands in sharp contrast to the exterior. The interior walls of the main galleries were constructed of plaster on metal lathe, and the whole space was designed to resemble Prince Eugene of Savoy's Hohenwerfen Castle in Austria, where Higgins acquired a selection of works in the collection. The walls were finished to resemble the Gothic stone arches in the medieval castle. Medieval-style lighting fixtures can be found throughout the building.
In 1980, the museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and two renovations have been completed since then. The 1988 renovation cost $1.4 million, followed by another in 1992 which used $2.6 million raised in campaign.
The Higgins collection consists of 2,000 objects, making it the second largest arms and armor collection in the country behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The collection includes 24 full suits of armor, a gladiator helmet, and "Helmutt," a dog mannequin dressed in reproduction boarhound armor. The oldest object in the collection is an Eastern Mediterranean dagger from between 3000 and 1500 B.C.
The collection includes gladiator and Corinthian helmets, gauntlets from the Renaissance period, and the helmet of a 19th-century French cuirassier. There are also pieces that depict the courtly life: helmets for jousting tournaments, a crossbow for hunting, a ceremonial gorget, and an anvil that was used to manufacture such pieces.
There are knives and axes from Africa, bow case covers from ancient Islam, a horned kulah khud (helmet) from India, and samurai armor from Japan, among others. The collection also includes examples of armor for dogs and horses. There are also full-scale models of jousts and foot tourneys.
The museum was prominent in the local community and hosted a number of educational programs on medieval history and arms and armor, ranging from school workshops and teacher education to scholarly lectures. It hosted school vacation camps as well as medieval festivals and demonstrations of various fighting styles. It was a popular location for birthday parties, where the cake was sliced by a costumed interpreter with a sword.
The Olive Higgins Prouty Research Library was founded in 1997 with an initial collection of "several thousand books on arms and armor."
The Higgins Armory was a major center of study for Western martial arts. Scholars associated with the museum such as curator Jeffrey Forgeng, William Short, and Ken Mondschein produced monographs and translations, gave papers and sponsored sessions at scholarly conferences, and lectured and demonstrated both in the US and Europe. The Higgins Armory Sword Guild was a study group founded in part by Patri J. Pugliese that conducted research into Western martial arts and demonstrated at the museum and in the community. The museum also held historical fencing and martial arts classes.
Norman Rockwell drew an imagined scene in the Higgins armory museum entitled Midnight Snack for the November 3, 1962 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
Higgins Armory Museum has been featured on the History Channel on multiple occasions, including a special DVD extra that focused solely on the museum.
In April 2011, the TV show Ghost Hunters filmed an episode at the museum to see if the ghost of Mr. Higgins haunted the building.