Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alas, I Live in Modern Times.... A Farewell to the Higgins

The Higgins Armory Museum will be closing its doors forever on December 31.  This quirky, unique institution has been a staple of the New England museum scene for over eight decades, long enough to have impacted generations of visitors. There is not another institution like it in the entire country nor is there likely to be another for the foreseeable future. It is a sad event and one to which other New England museums large and small should pay attention.

John Woodman Higgins
The Higgins must close because it does not have the endowment to provide the financial stability the museum needs to operate. It must close because it is an institution from another time. The museum was the personal venture of John Woodman Higgins, a Worcester industrialist whose business, Worcester Pressed Steel, provided both the reason and the means for Higgins to begin amassing his collection of arms and armor in the early 20th century.  Higgins had a life-long passion for medieval armor and wrote in a poem about his collection lamenting the fact couldn't have witnessed the armor in use personally, "alas, I live in modern times."  The collection grew and was housed in its own building and welcomed generations of visitors. It is a story of civic philanthropy based on industrial wealth that underlies many of our revered museums across the country, but especially in the Northeast. It was an American philanthropic model that worked for much of the 20th century, but whose relevance has eroded and whose sustainability faces significant challenges in the 21st.

Higgins's Glass and Steel Wonder under Construction
This surface story does explain much of the demise of the Higgins, but there are deeper more interesting dimensions to its history. In 1931, Higgins built a state-of-the-art museum building utilising cutting-edge architectural techniques to house his beloved collections. How many museums around the world are turning to Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry to do the same today? At its inception, Higgins saw the arms and armor collection as a means of stimulating interest in steel fabrication and the collection was intermixed with modern examples of the latest in steel manufacture and design. The Higgins Armory Museum wasn't about armor, it was about steelA tour of the museum was followed by a tour of the factory itself to see steel being worked and shaped using the latest methods. Juxtaposing the historic with the contemporary. Sounds pretty progressive, right? Believing that museums have a powerful role in inspiring interest and future involvement in science and engineering.  Sounds like STEM, doesn't it? 

© Frank H. Jump
But this forward-looking focus did not survive the economic tumult of the latter part of the 20th century.  At some point the factory tours and the modern examples fell away and the focus of the museum reverted onto Higgins's fabulous collection of arms and armor. Worcester Pressed Steel went out of business in 1975 but the museum continued on, still nestled among industrial buildings to which it no longer had any relation. The survival of the institution was now in the hands of those generations of visitors who had been so bewitched by Higgins's visionary magic in previous decades.  And, sadly, the love, the successful programming, the educational commitment, all wasn't enough.

The good news is that John Higgins's beloved collection is staying in Worcester and plans are already well developed for its integration into the collections and interpretation of the Worcester Art Museum. Both institutions are trying hard to make this transition as transparent as possible and you can read more about this here.  What fate awaits the building itself is, as yet, unclear.

Museums are expensive and the days of depending on a single or small group of benefactors are largely over. At the same time, I believe that museums are important and worth the expense. What will be the new philanthropic model that sustains these institutions for the next eight decades? Museum directors across the country are struggling to find out. The passing of the old model does, I think, spell the end of a certain kind of American museum and as I walk through Higgins's soaring great hall, I can't help but muse, alas I live in modern times...
-Vident Omnes

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