Worcester Art Museum’s Medieval Galleries Transport to the Past

Monica Sager, Scarlet Staff

In the middle of the reinstallation of the Medieval Galleries at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM),  stands a six-foot-high armor composite suit. “It’s like the modern football uniform,” said Jeffery Forgeng, Worcester Art Museum curator of arms, armor, and medieval art, who is also a professor at WPI.

The armor is tin-soldier-like, with scaled arms, bolts, and a helmet that looks quite like a beak for aerodynamic purposes.“It’s a very complex machine with lots of different moving parts,” in Forgeng’s words, “it’s an expression of identity, social class, and gender.”

This specific piece wasn’t historically assembled as it is now. It is only after being brought to the WAM that each individual item was placed together to create a medieval suit of armor. The pieces, like many others in the Medieval exhibit, are from a collection started by John Woodman Higgins. Higgins, owner of Worcester Pressed Steel, became fascinated with Medieval armory and began collecting items around World War I.

Higgins’ obsession began when Bashford Dean commissioned a Major in the Ordnance Corps. Dean worked to develop armor, especially helmets, that would be innovative for the time. The design is “pretty similar to today,” says Forgeng. Dean included Higgins in the project to create the protective covering.

By 1926, Higgins was collecting armor and commissioned Dean to help him open the armory museum on the Higgins Pressed Steal campus five years later.

According to the Road Side America website, “the Higgins collection of armor is second in size – at least in this hemisphere – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in New York City,” said on its website; “most of it is from medieval and renaissance Europe.”

The Higgins Armory Museum was shut down in December of 2013. In 2014 there was an agreement for the Worcester Art Museum to take over, Higgins Medieval collection and all. It is still uncertain what will happen to the old Higgins Armory Museum building, located a mere three miles from the Worcester Art Museum.

“The reinstallation of the exhibit in 2016 was designed to show off a lot of Higgins’s collections,” Forgeng said. Ultimately, the Worcester Art Museum hopes to have a permanent display of the medieval artifacts by 2023.

While only about one hundred items are viewable now, Forgeng hopes to show off 2000 at some point. Other items within the Reinstallation of the Medieval Galleries includes about a dozen staff weapons, a limestone statue of “Virgin and Child” from the mid-1300s, and dark stained glass windows depicting important people of the times.

“Sharing the objects is the most fun part,” Forgeng states.

The Worcester Art Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Every third Thursday of the month, the museum is open for an extended four hours. Students from Clark are always granted free entrance.