WORCESTER — He was known as “The Man of Steel,” and with good reason. John Woodman Higgins, who owned and ran the Worcester Processed Steel Company in the early decades of the 20th century, made it his mission to educate the public on how steel and steel-making elevated the quality of everyday life and contributed to mankind’s progress.
It was his other passion, though — amassing a world-class collection of medieval armor, helmets, swords, artwork, and other objects — that became Higgins’s most enduring legacy, a monument to his childhood fascination with knights in combat and one he yearned to share with the general public, preferably in a setting that fired up their young imaginations just as his had been stoked as a boy.
In 1931, Higgins erected a gleaming, glass-and-steel armory building to house his growing collection (and steel company offices). The five-story Art Deco structure was his modernist version of a medieval castle, complete with soaring, vaulted interior spaces that showcased his amazing collection to maximum effect.
On Dec. 31, Higgins’s dream — or at least one realization of it — will come to an end. The armory’s entire collection, some 3,000 pieces in all, is being moved to the Worcester Art Museum. The armory itself will close. The process of transferring the Higgins collection to WAM, where it will initially occupy a 4,000-square-foot exhibit space, is expected to begin later this winter and could take five years to complete, armory officials say, with a temporary exhibit opening in late March or early April.
In the meantime, a special exhibit titled “Knight to Remember” is offering visitors a chance to look back on the museum’s colorful history and to record their own thoughts about what it has meant to them over the past eight decades.
“We want to provide them some closure,’’ said Devon Kurtz, the museum’s director of education, conducting a recent tour of the exhibit. Beyond that, he said, their goals have been “to keep the collection together, to keep it in Worcester, and to transfer our Higgins DNA — how the collection is used — to the Worcester Art Museum, which is working hard on the collaboration.”
“Knight to Remember” features a computer kiosk and guest book where visitors can log in and preserve personal memories of trips to the armory. Through the armory’s website (www.higgins.org ), museumgoers can also submit photos and stories from visits past. Vintage photographs and a retrospective video provide further highlights of the armory’s colorful history.
For the remainder of this year, a full menu of special events is planned. These include Haunted Higgins on Oct. 26, with Halloween costumes, crafts, and storytelling; a Veterans Day exploration of military armor past and present, on Nov. 11; and an annual Gingerbread Castle Competition on Dec. 14.
One of the museum’s most popular attractions is Castle Quest, where youngsters can try on a suit of armor, construct their own castle, test their archery prowess, measure the difference between a poleax and a broadsword, and play a game of chess on a gigantic chessboard. Visitors with a more scholarly or historical bent can find, in the upstairs galleries, a Roman gladiatorial helmet dating back to the first century; a Middle Kingdom combat ax approximately 4,000 years old; an early-17th-century Japanese sea conch shell helmet; and many suits of armor, some designed for combat and others ceremonial in nature or only worn in jousting tournaments.
Higgins died in 1961, at age 87. By the mid-1970s, other museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, were angling to acquire his collection, considered the second best of its kind (after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s) outside Europe. Trustees of the Higgins Museum Armory demurred, however, and in 1979 stewardship of the museum moved from family hands to a public governing board, where it has resided ever since.
The collection continued to expand, meanwhile, as staffers added more acquisitions and offered more exhibits and programs that were interactive and family-friendly. From swordplay workshops and combat demonstrations to storytelling sessions and costume parties, the armory became a place to play as well as to learn; for visitors to experience the visceral thrill that Higgins did in traveling the world and digging deeply into the past.
With 58,000 visitors a year, the armory has remained a popular Central Massachusetts attraction. Without a large endowment to support it, though, it has struggled to make ends meet. The Higgins building itself will go on the market sometime next year, its eventual fate undetermined at this point, although museum officials hope it will be bought by someone “who will respect it,” said Kurtz.
Officials also hope that at least some of the classes currently offered at the museum will be available once the collection is moved. Many details remain to be ironed out, though.
“Both parties look at this [transfer] as a new renaissance,” Kurtz said, while the idea behind the farewell exhibit is “to look at our past history while staying true to Higgins’s dream.”
According to Kurtz, Higgins loved nothing better than taking kids around his museum and showing them all the cool stuff.
“He always thought artisanry could be both functional and beautiful,” Kurtz said. “Our current vision is that we believe the collection can open minds and excite learning.”
Once WAM takes over the collection, “they’ll be calling the shots,” he added. “But we hope they’ll retain a lot of the culture that’s already here.”
Higgins Armory Museum, 100 Barber Ave., Worcester. Open Tues. through Sat. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sun. noon to 4 p.m. Admission: adults $12, seniors $10, college students $9,
children 4-16 $8. For more information call 508-853-6015 or visit www.higgins.org.