December 18, 2016

Editorial: Worcester Art Museum’s new gallery shows its mettle

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Three years ago, Higgins Armory on Barber Avenue gently closed its ornate old doors. Years of financial strain had finally forced the museum to surrender.

As heartbreaking as that was — the armory was a labor of love for more than 80 years and a thoroughly Worcester original — there was a glimmer of good news.

The Worcester Art Museum agreed to take in the core Higgins collection, and promised to do all it could to properly care for and showcase the magnificent treasures. The art museum even said it would take pains in the coming years to incorporate armory items into its existing holdings, displaying pieces together in order to tell a fuller cultural story than either of the two museums could do on their own.

WAM, which is unveiling its revamped Medieval Galleries this weekend, has been as good as its word.

There’s chivalry on Salisbury Street — and swords, shields, and gleaming suits of armor. And museum officials promise more progress in their embrace of the Higgins collection in the years ahead.

The Medieval Galleries opening is part of the art museum’s “Medieval Holidays” celebration this month. Today, Dec. 18, the schedule of musical, craft and other special events includes a tour of the exhibit at 3 p.m. by Curator of Arms and Armor Jeffrey Forgeng.

The Higgins Armory was built by Worcester industrialist John Woodman Higgins to house his growing collection, and opened what became the Western Hemisphere’s largest collection of medieval armor to the public in 1931. Gorgeous, meticulous and extensive, it won renown and respect around the world.

As much as we miss visiting the imposing, glass-and-steel building, the art museum’s take is intriguing. Instead of the magnificent, echoing interior of the Higgins, with its part-castle, part-cave feel, the Higgins items are in window-filled halls at the WAM.

“These objects were meant to be visually impressive, exciting and vibrant, and we’ve really been able to bring that back to the objects with the natural light,” Forgeng told the Telegram & Gazette.

The new exhibit includes interactive features, with the museum “trying to show objects in ways that allow people to really appreciate them and feel their power,” Forgeng said.

That power goes beyond the heft and intent of the vintage war objects. Just as the Higgins once did, the Worcester Art Museum wants people of all ages to enjoy the antiquities, marvel over their craftsmanship, imagine themselves inside a clanking suit of armor, heart beating fast — and learn how conflicts and conquests of the past shaped where we are today.

The Medieval Galleries occupy two adjoining spaces. The exhibit includes some 100 Higgins items alongside other artworks long in WAM’s possession. Museum officials say that eventually, and without adding a new wing, essentially the entire armory collection will be on view.

The new exhibit takes the place of the long-running “Knights!” — a well-regarded and innovative display at the art museum debuted in March 2014, just three months after the Higgins took its post-Christmas bow and some 2,000 antiques were packed up for the trip across town.

The art museum has relied on armory expertise; modern display strategies such as open storage, which allows glimpses into the array of choices; and its own characteristic wisdom and sparkle to bring the Higgins valuables properly to their new home. The antiquities now have tighter quarters, but all the TLC the Higgins legacy and the city of Worcester could wish for them.

Go, take the kids, or at least vanquish the out-of-town visitors to the art museum for a while. The demise of the one-of-a-kind Higgins Armory — a place that distinguished Worcester, put it on the medieval map and quietly served it so well for decades — taught us starkly that our cultural institutions have their own battles to fight.

They need our ongoing support and patronage.

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