The Virtues of a Liberal Arts Education

My internship at the Higgins Armory Museum this summer had a relatively simple description: I would be working with the Curatorial department, focusing mostly on the archives and the library. What I did not realize at first was the wide array of skills and experiences I would draw on in order to complete the tasks assigned to me. What follows is a list of just some of the classes I’ve taken whose coursework has been useful to me this summer:

Arabic – I took Arabic for two semesters last year, at Haverford. The Higgins has a decent collection of Islamic armor, including a mail shirt with a maker’s medallion we ran across while checking and re-organizing all of the mail in the collection. Even simple things like distinguishing from letters and numbers in foreign scripts can be quite useful!

Latin – I took Latin for two years, in 7th and 8th grade, because my school required it. I quit as soon as I could, because I really don’t like memorizing vocabulary and I’ve always found the Romans incredibly dull. It’s a good thing I still paid attention, though, as I found myself this summer transcribing part of a 16th century combat manual (in this case, a German Fechtbuch by Paulus Hector Mair). The scribe used a fair amount of shorthand and abbreviations, which required me to dig back into my small still of Latin knowledge to decipher. An example: the scribe used a small squiggle to indicate an omitted nasal, either m or n. In order to transcribe the document, I needed to know that most of these at the ends of words would be m, as many Latin suffixes end in m; however, certamen, a very frequent word in this text, ends in n.

German – I took German this past year at Haverford, so have a basic vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. It turns out that the Latin Fechtbuch I transcribed also exists in two other versions: one in German, and the other with both Latin and German. My next step, after getting my footing with the Latin, was to move on to the German version, which has much more complicated script. What was really rewarding about this transcription, though, was my ability to translate it. It turns out that since a Fechtbuch is such a technical document, the language is fairly simple and repetitive. With only two semesters of German under my belt, I’ve been able to translate five full sequences, including this one.


Corresponding pages from three versions of the Mair Fechtbuch. From left to right: German (Dresden); Bilingual (Vienna); Latin (Munich)


Linguistics –I was definitely hoping I would get to use some linguistics, it being my major and all. I haven’t been able to do any rigorous linguistics work, but I have found the body of little tidbits and fun facts I’ve built up to be tremendously helpful. In translating the Fechtbuch, I called upon some reading I’ve done (for fun) about the history of English and Germanic languages. Since the manuscript is from the 16th century, it makes use of old spelling conventions (when it has spelling conventions at all). Some of the simpler instances of this are the German word ein ‘one’ appearing as ain, or linken ‘left’ appearing as linckhen or lincken in the monolingual German copy and as linggen in the bilingual Latin/German copy. Similar inconsistencies appeared in the Latin.

Our library has a fair number of books in other languages, mostly French and German. Recently, I’ve been charged with transferring the records of periodicals to a digital format (our library still uses a card catalogue, and all the indexes were created on the typewriter in the room). I’ve spent time figuring out that “København” wasn’t somewhere exotic, merely Copenhagen in Danish, and that “Maggio” is not my friend’s name, but actually the Italian month of May.

Chemistry – I didn’t even only draw from humanities! I dabbled for a day in conservation, only to discover that it is essentially applied chemistry. A good conservator has a detailed knowledge of the composition and qualities of each different type of material they encounter, as well as a mental ordered list of the possible issues and chemical and physical treatments best suited for preserving them.

History – I had lots of fun digging around in old pictures and documents in the archives! One gem: this Certificate of Cooperation issued to the Worcester Pressed Steel Company (the company the Higgins Armory was originally affiliated with) for participating in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, following World War II.


Also, on a somewhat less fun note, eight years of history teachers requiring research papers has caused me to have most of the Chicago Manual of Style citation formats memorized, which has come in handy on multiple occasions. Three cheers for academic honesty!

Museum Studies – Last semester at Haverford, I took Rubie Watson’s course titled Museum Anthropology. To have the chance to see the things we had discussed in class in action while the ideas are still fresh in my head has been quite a fulfilling experience.

English – As much as I complained about it at the time, I’m really thankful my high school required a Shakespeare course senior year. I chose Political Shakespeare, in which we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, followed by a bunch of histories: Richard II, Henry IV (both parts), Henry V, and Richard III. While some may dispute the actual historical accuracy of these, the basic understanding I now have of English history political structure of that period has been helpful in putting the objects in the museum into better context.

Technical Theater – This one is more of a corollary to the previous, but still important. The semester I took a technical theater course in high school, we helped put on an 80’s punk London adaptation of Richard III. The act of having to try to explain the War of the Roses to an audience definitely helped me understand it a bit more myself.

Music – This one is a little bit of a stretch, as I haven’t actually had to do anything distinctly musical this summer. What I have needed are some of the things I’ve picked up from singing a diverse selection of pieces. For instance: Middle School Latin class doesn’t teach you the word crucem ‘cross’, but singing Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” does. This came in handy when I ran across an unfamiliar German word while translating the combat manual, but I was able to see that the corresponding Latin referred to the crucem, or the crossguard of a blade. Another: If we hadn’t sung that goofy “Dancing Song” in 11th grade, I would have no idea that Magyar referred to Hungary, and would not have been able to connect with a friend of my mother’s, who happens to speak Hungarian and was willing to help me figure out what a book in the library, A Magyar Viseletek Története, was about.

All this being said, I am reminded how grateful I am for all I have learned while at the Higgins. Hopefully, I can add it to my list of “useful things I’ve learned,” and can apply it in future endeavors. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll really need to know which pauldron goes on which arm (Mr. Higgins could have used the knowledge; he got it backwards!).

J Higgins in armor



1 Comment

  1. I really like reading Latin sigla (scribal abbreviatiõs). Actually, the same tilde-for-nasal appeared in English books into the seventeenth century—for example, in the 1611 printing of the King James Bible (facsimile here).


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