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Closing time at Worcester’s singular showplace of armor

Jeremy Peters, 10, of Southbridge tried on a sallet as he and his family visited the Higgins Armory Museum earlier this month.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Jeremy Peters, 10, of Southbridge tried on a sallet as he and his family visited the Higgins Armory Museum earlier this month.

WORCESTER — Attendance is up. The collection has never looked better.

Which is why, for many visitors to the Higgins Armory Museum, it’s hard to believe it will close for good on Tuesday after 83 years — the end of the only museum in the United States devoted just to arms and armor.

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“The first thing I noticed when I pulled up was there were buses in the parking lot and the place was humming,” Jennifer Zazo, a park ranger at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, said visiting the museum on a recent weekday. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a place that’s getting ready to close.”

But on Tuesday, at 4 p.m., the last visitors will leave the distinctive, steel-and-glass building on Barber Avenue. Museum leaders say anybody on hand can pose for a photograph meant for the museum archives. And Clarinda “Rindy” Higgins, the granddaughter of the museum founder who tried to stop the shuttering, will ceremoniously close the door for the last time.

Last March, the Higgins leadership voted to close after years of struggle brought on, they said, by the museum’s small endowment. The Higgins had an annual budget of $1.3 million with deficits hovering between $500,000 and nearly $1 million, according to tax filings. Unable to raise enough to balance the budget, and unwilling to sell off significant portions of the collection to stay open, the museum’s leaders came up with a solution that has drawn wide praise: the coveted collection of arms and armor would be transferred to the nearby Worcester Art Museum.

The Worcester Art Museum will renovate its current library to become a gallery for Higgins works and install a temporary exhibit in early 2014.

In explaining their strategy, museum leaders pointed out that often institutions in crisis — the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and Chicago’s Field Museum, for example — have sold off books and art in response to budget deficits. But those sales did not lead to financial stability.

‘Every day, we’re asked how we could be losing something that’s so great.’

Suzanne W. Maas, interim executive director at the Higgins 
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“I can’t say enough about the leadership of the Higgins,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “They did such a great job of thinking this through and making the right decision. It’s a great example of how a museum that was struggling engineered a very good ending for the community.”

The Higgins Armory Museum, which displays more than 2,000 objects, has a rich history. John Woodman Higgins, an industrialist who owned the Worcester Pressed Steel Company, opened the museum in 1931 to display his growing collection of armor.

Along with its serious conservation work, the museum has also been popular for its community programs, including “OverKnight” sleepovers, classes taught by fencing historians, and birthday parties in which the cake is sliced by a sword-wielding, costumed “interpreter.”

The crowds have gotten only bigger over the last year, as news of the closing spread to longtime visitors and locals who had never visited the museum’s cavernous Great Hall, with its gothic, arched ceiling.

“This is amazing, real history,” said Bill Knuff, a retiree from Groton during his recent first visit.

In 2012, visitors numbered 52,806 through November. During the same period this year, 77,194 had visited. Of course, attendance has never been an issue for the museum, which has drawn more people than the larger Worcester Art Museum.

The problem is that museums generally draw just a small fraction of their operating budgets from ticket revenue. The majority is supposed to come from donations and returns on endowment funds, a detail the museum-going public is typically unaware of.

“It’s been very challenging,” said interim executive director Suzanne W. Maas. “Every day, we’re asked how we could be losing something that’s so great. They also ask ‘What’s going to happen to the building’ or ‘Will you still have a job?’ ”

Those questions remain. Adam Reed Rozan, the Worcester Art Museum’s director of audience engagement, would not provide information about his museum’s hiring plans.

Longtime Higgins curator Jeffrey Forgeng says he’s not concerned about anything beyond this spring.

The task of emptying the 42,000-square-foot Higgins building of objects is immense. He’s remaining on staff at the Higgins for several more months, sorting through the collection and cataloging items as the building is prepared for a sale.

“I feel sad that we’ve done great stuff and that we have to close,” said Forgeng, the museum’s curator since 1999. “On the other hand, I feel proud that we’re closing on a high note. I take a lot of pride in that we’re going out very strong. It also points out a really important, broader lesson. That you can not run a museum on earned income.”

On a recent weekday, Forgeng walked through the spotless museum to show off his favorite spots. With the museum’s neatly organized cases of swords and armor, it was impossible to detect that within days, the building would be closing.

“We’ve been trying to keep the visitor process as intact as possible,” he said. “We don’t want to have the look of a store during a closeout sale.”

Upstairs, in the Knights Gallery, he pointed out a blackened, battered knee guard dating to 1400 that he said is “tremendously rare.” Downstairs, he showed off a two-handed sword, dating to 1300 Germany, made of steel and iron with a brass inlay. He acquired the sword in 2008.

“Higgins wasn’t all that interested in swords and that’s always been a problem for us,” said Forgeng. “Visitors, when they come here, expect to see swords.”

For Forgeng, the last year has been a blur. His partner, Christine Drew, the associate director for research and instruction services at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute library, died in February of cancer. The museum closing was announced in March. Forgeng has barely taken any time off.

When a museum visitor casually asked him a question about the museum’s future during the walk through, Forgeng snapped that he didn’t have time to take questions. Then he apologized to the man, admitting “I’m very stressed out.”

“None of us has ever closed a museum before,” he said.

There will be no special event Tuesday night to commemorate the closing. On Nov. 16, about 350 people gathered at the Higgins for “A Knight to Remember,” eating, drinking, and dancing as part of what Maas described as an “Irish wake.” A smaller group of staffers — there are nine full-time and 20 part-time workers — headed to The Flying Rhino on Shrewsbury Street earlier this month for their own farewell.

Tuesday, the public says goodbye.

“Rindy” Higgins plans to drive up to Worcester from her home in Connecticut. She will be joined by her son and nephew as well as three of Higgins’s great-grandchildren.

As a girl in the 1950s, Rindy Higgins remembers hanging out at the museum with her grandfather. She said she has made peace with the museum’s closing and, beyond that, knows it is inevitable.

“I just felt that it was started by a Higgins and the final closing, the tying of the knot, should be a Higgins,” she said. “There’s great pride, the joyful memories. There’s also a sadness, obviously, and it’s sort of part of the grieving process to be able to say goodbye.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at geoff.edgers@globe.com.
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