The Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, for almost eight decades the only museum in the country devoted solely to arms and armor, will close for good in December — the end of an institution renowned for its castlelike building and fanciful activities as well as for its historical treasures.
The museum’s interim director, Suzanne W. Maas, will announce the closure Friday.
The armory is a rare combination of serious conservation, preserving more than 2,000 objects such as armored suits and weapons dating to ancient Egypt, and community participation, including “OverKnight” sleepovers for youth groups and birthday parties in which the cake is sliced by a sword-wielding, costumed “interpreter.”
Most of the prized collection, visited by hundreds of thousands of people over the years, will remain in Worcester and accessible to the public. The Worcester Art Museum will receive the Higgins’s inventory, and the Higgins will also transfer its endowment of almost $3 million. The Worcester Art Museum, in turn, will renovate its current library by 2015 to become a gallery for the Higgins pieces. A temporary exhibit featuring collections from both museums will go on display as early as 2014.
The deal gives the Worcester Art Museum material that has proved popular at other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Cleveland Museum of Art. Last year, in fact, the Higgins Armory, with an annual budget of $1.3 million, attracted 60,000 visitors. The Worcester Art Museum, with a $9 million annual budget, had about 46,000 visitors.
“The Higgins is very, very good in reaching an audience we are not as good at, which is family audiences,” said Matthias Wascheck, the Worcester Art Museum’s director. “We are in a phenomenal situation. Instead of adding a new wing, we can use existing real estate. And there is another reason: It is the incredible high quality of the collection.”
The decision to keep the majority of the collection in Worcester will fill a regional need, Wascheck said.
Unlike the Met and several other encyclopedic museums, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston does not have a strong European arms and armor collection. The MFA was founded, in 1870, in large part to house a collection of arms given by a benefactor. But most of the bequest was destroyed in the Boston fire of 1872.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Anne Hawley, the director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, of transferring the Higgins collection to the Worcester Art Museum. “There’s a lot of interest in medieval armor now. This is very smart.”
The Higgins, on Barber Avenue, is less than 3 miles from the Worcester Art Museum.
John Woodman Higgins, who owned the Worcester Pressed Steel Company, built the museum to house the growing collection of armor he began buying in Europe in the 1920s. For years, the Higgins Armory Museum was the sole museum in the United States devoted just to armor, though in 2004 the Frazier Historical Arms Museum opened in Louisville, Ky.
The collapse of the Higgins, Maas said, is not because of a lack of popularity but to its failure to raise enough money to balance its budget.
In recent years, deficits have hovered between nearly $1 million and $500,000, according to tax filings. That has forced the museum to draw from its endowment. Maas would not say how much the endowment was worth at its height, but she said it is now at $2.9 million.
“There is not enough long-term support, and I can say I am very gratified that the trustees have made the tough decision and did not draw it out,” she said. “There’s a sadness, but it’s the right decision. It is in finding the absolutely best home for the long-term stewardship of this collection.”
Discussions are still underway regarding the details of the transfer, and both museum directors said they could not say whether any of the Higgins’s eight full-time staff members would be hired as part of the arrangement.
Wascheck also said he does not know how much renovating the museum’s library would cost.
Though negotiations between the two museums have been closely guarded, one expert in arms and armor said he did have an inkling of the Higgins’s financial problems.
Stephen Fliegel, the longtime curator of medieval art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, noticed last week in a catalog that more than 500 objects from the Higgins collection are being auctioned off March 20 by dealer Thomas Del Mar through Sotheby’s in London. But Fliegel said local museum-goers should not worry. The material, he said, might be of interest to private collectors but is not good enough to rate being shown in most institutions.
Maas said the sale, known in the museum world as deaccessioning, is unrelated to the closing of the Higgins.
In fact, she said, the museum voted to sell the pieces last July. The vote to give the museum’s collection to the Worcester Art Museum took place in November.
The objects being sold have never been on display and are not of museum quality, Maas stressed.
In addition, any proceeds earned through the March 20 auction will be added to the museum’s endowment, then transferred to the Worcester Art Museum.
“This is simple housekeeping,” Maas said. “We have 10 virtually identical examples of troopers helmets. Do we need 10, or do we need seven?”
Discussions between the Higgins Armory Museum and the Worcester Museum of Art began even before Waschek took over as director, in November 2011.
His hiring meant pausing the transfer discussions, but in an interview he said he learned to appreciate how the Higgins collection could be used with work already in the Worcester Art Museum.
“I never thought I’d be raving about helmets, but there’s a gladiator helmet that’s superb,” he said. “We have a Spanish ceiling, which we will transfer from our ground floor to our new gallery. When you look at Renaissance paintings, we have lots of people in armor.”