I’m Elizabeth Peters, a linguistics major having just finished my sophomore year, and this summer I’m interning in the curatorial department at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. I first visited the museum this past January, when a friend and I were looking for things to do in Worcester on a cold, rainy day. My mother suggested the Higgins, and was surprised to realize she had never taken me. Worcester is a city still recovering from deindustrialization, and, alongside some really fantastic restaurants, the Higgins museum is its shining star. It is among the largest and best arms and armor collections in the United States, and the only one with is own museum.
John Woodman Higgins, the founder of the museum, was the owner of Worcester Pressteel. He had been fascinated by stories of knights and ancient battles since he was a child, and so when he and his wife would go traveling in Europe, he would buy suits of armor, swords, and other iron forged objects as mementos of the castles he visited. Towards the late 1920s, the collecting of arms and armor became a pursuit in and of itself. In 1929, he established the museum, and began constructing the impressive five-story steel-and-glass building that still houses the collection. The building was completed in 1931. The museum was originally conceived as an industrial museum, with one wing of historical arms and armor and the other of modern marvels of steel working. When the Pressteel factory finally closed, the museum decided to focus on the strongest parts of its collection, the arms and armor. All in all, the collection is comprised of nearly 4000 pieces, from ancient Greek and Roman pieces to modern Gothic Revival replicas.
Since starting at the Higgins two weeks ago, I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with this history in much greater depth. My very first day, I was handed a full two-inch binder of material covering the history of the museum, of armor, and of metalworking to read. This being a somewhat daunting task, I was told that if I needed a break I was to go explore the archives. Go explore the archives. No directives, no goals other than go find out what’s in there. Needless to say, this was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever had (closely rivaled by this past Friday, but I’ll get to that). The archives is small, filling a room only about 10 feet square, but it is a treasure trove of old and fascinating books, newspapers, pictures, and ideas. One highlight: tucked into the back of a scrapbook of castles Mr. Higgins visited to procure armor, I found the magazine of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, from June 1941. The last page was a story about four St. Alban’s School boys who had graduated with particular honors. These included two boys who had received scholarships to go to – yes – Haverford College the next year! Another, more recent find were two books each marked in the finding aid, descriptively, “Massive Scrapbook.” It turned out that these had been purchased by Mr. Higgins to help his collecting, and had been compiled by someone who wrote notes in Italian, but didn’t shy from diagrams in French. I am certainly pleased to work in an environment where a request to borrow your supervisor’s Italian dictionary is met simply with “Enjoy! There’s lots of good words in there!”
Alongside the organization of the archives (Yes, I have to more than just explore) I am also working on organizing and digitizing the museum’s audio-visual archives. This has been unusually frustrating, as I have had computers work in the strangest and most unexplainable of ways. For instance, there was one day I would play one DVD and save the content, but when I tried to put in a different DVD, the computer would play the content from the previous one for the duration of the current. I tried the same thing the next day and nothing odd happened. Go figure. I have had the fun of getting to watch all the videocassettes as I transfer them onto DVD, including one entertaining Modern Marvels episode featuring my supervisor. Apparently, he is not very fond of seeing pictures of himself, and so would hurry by the television as I was watching, refusing to look.
As I mentioned a bit earlier, this past Friday is a strong contender for best day. Another project I will be working on over the summer is going through the museum’s library to decide which books are essential to the collection and which could easily be found elsewhere. The Higgins announced in April that it will be closing its doors at the end of this year, and transferring the core of its collections to the Worcester Art Museum. In preparation, much of the work being done at the museum currently, including my work in the library, involves finding that core. Now, to explain why I found this day so exciting, it is important to know that I love books, especially old history books, and that I love languages. It’s an inherited obsession: last summer on vacation in Maine, my family found a tiny antique book shop. An hour and a half later, my mother had to ask the owner to go find my dad and me, because the dog was getting anxious sitting with just her outside and my brother had gotten bored a while ago. The Higgins library, covering mostly topics of armor, weaponry, metalwork, and the people and battles surrounding them, is chock full of really old history books, as well as many in German, French, and other languages. In order to decide which books stayed and which went, I needed to know what was in them. I took liberally the instruction to look through each book “enough to make a call.” Initially, I felt a little bad about getting distracted, until my supervisor came in to check on me, started reading through a book, and then abruptly handed it to me saying, “I wish I had time to get distracted. You get distracted for me.” I gladly complied.
My work hasn’t been all books, however. I got to look on one day as the curatorial and conservation staff looked over a full suit of armor to weigh its merits as part of the “core” collection. (It passed, despite having mismatched gauntlets, because of a relatively rare type of pauldron, or shoulder piece.) I was also invited this Saturday to practice with some students of rapier and dagger fighting at the Higgins. I had hoped that my experience fencing would be helpful, as the modern sport is descended from historical rapier and smallsword techniques, but quickly discovered that it only gave me a starting idea of how to stand. First off, the rapier is much heavier than a fencing sword. This means both that it must be held differently, and that the small, quick movements I am used to relying on simply were not feasible. In addition, the dagger means that the non-dominant hand, which is only used for balance in modern fencing, now must be used for defensive blocks, and even for attacking. Still, I highly enjoyed spending the morning working at trying to work against my instincts.
In the next few weeks, I look forward to continuing work in the library (I’ve only finished one bookcase), and with the archives and audio-visual files. In addition, I will be working on the photographic documentation of the museum and its exhibits in their last incarnation as the Higgins Armory Museum.