Sunday, May 4, 2014


At the end of 2013, the Higgins Armory Museum closed its doors, and in January 2014, the Worcester Art Museum acquired the entire collection of weapons, suits of armor, helmets, etc. In March, the art museum opened a new exhibit called Knights.

I'm hoping to teach an Introduction to Heraldry class at the museum, this Summer. Illness and time prevented me from seeing the exhibit when it first opened. I had a little bit of time on Thursday, so I thought I'd run in and do some quick note taking for my heraldry class. Part of taking classes at the museum now involves a "field trip(s)" into the collection. The purpose is to relate the art to the class and to get more people to visit the collection more frequently. I wanted to make note of helmet styles, crests and motifs that would appear on a coat of arms.

I had seen the collection many times at the Higgins Armory and was expecting a similar show. Suits of armor, swords, weapons, helmets showing their use in war. The first display in the art museum is a knight astride his horse. Typical. Except the horse is pink. Well, I thought, it must be the museum's interpretation of a strawberry roan horse. Except what I saw when I entered the gallery was very unexpected. Blown away unexpected.

Instead of just the armor, paintings from the time period are displayed on the walls. The Art of War is visually brought to life. As you enter the gallery, you are in the middle of suits of armor and portraits of woman in their Elizabethan style dresses, a courtly romance. Dashing knights in their parade armor (fancy, damascened metal) and women elegantly dressed and bejeweled in their "armor" (jewelry, gowns made from yards of heavy material and (whale)bone stays). Each side ready to engage in the art of courtly love. Breath-taking!

The exhibit is divided into other themes. Helmets from various time periods and cultures are displayed in a round grouping which brings to mind King Arthur and his Round Table. Opposite the helmets is the painting Venus at the Forge of Vulcan. In the painting one can see the elements that are needed to make armor and weapons. (Mining the ore from the earth, smelting, working the metal at a forge and turning the metal into helmets, shields, swords). On another wall, a portrait of a woman  at her vanity carefully picking out the pieces of "armor", the jewelry she will wear. She wears a pearl choker like a knight would wear a gorget (armor to protect the neck and throat).

And from here, you run smack into Batman. No, I'm not kidding. There on display is the molded rubber and black leather costume that Michael Keaton wore in Batman (1989, directed by Tim Burton).  As you look at the armor, you think the knights are dead and long gone.  No longer part of the culture. But there's the Dark Knight in his modern armor and part of pop culture.

There's an arched wall, an Arche du Triomphe, if you will. Leaning against the wall are tall (very tall), pikes, swords, lances, a reminder that these deadly weapons ended lives. A battle may have been won, but the cost was very high.

One of the highlights of visiting the Higgins Museum was the second floor, an area for children where they could try on costumes. I loved trying on the green bean can shaped knights helmet and doing the crayon rubbing of a knight in effigy.Happily, the art museum didn't forget that aspect of the armor collection. There's a kid's corner in the back with big, comfy pillows to rest upon. (I was tempted). Toy chests and I assume they have costumes to try on and pretend) Higgins had a mascot, a dog, called Helmutt, in hunting armor. Veronica Fish illustrated a new Helmutt, Helmutt shows the way to interactive exhibits and his pawprints with Keep Your Paws Off, is a friendly reminder to everyone not to touch the exhibits.  My favorite Helmutt was of him below the portraits of the Renaissance. Helmutt also wore an Elizabethan gown complete with stiff ruffled collar, an imagine yourself dressed like this.

The visitor then wends his way through a passage of swords and daggers from all over the world. Beautifully wrought. Etched and inlaid. Beautiful. And deadly. We can romanticize the era by seeing these pieces out of context, but we shouldn't forget their real function was not beautiful.

On another wall, three early firearms. Carved wooden stocks. Game changers that could stop a knight dead in his tracks.

Entering a small room, like a coffin, haunting and shocking images, from Guns Without Borders in Mexico and Central America featuring twelve images from photographers, Louie Palu and Carlos Javier Ortiz. (On display until 9. November 2014) The images are a reminder that wars are not glorious and not all combatants are soldiers. Lives of children and other innocents are lost in the cross hairs of war.

As I said, the entire exhibit is mind blowing and thought provoking.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds awesome! Thanks for giving us a 'virtual tour'. (I gave up culture for climate....I'm beginning to question my decision.)