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Worcester Art Museums’s new collection spans the ages – for all ages

Published in baystateparent magazine

The new Knights! exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum heralds in a new, fresh approach to the beloved medieval collection of arms and armor acquired from the Higgins Armory Museum, which closed its ornamental doors at the end of 2014.

While the collection is the same, the context in which it is presented is very different: arms and armor are paired with art and historical context to present various stories of Medieval and Renaissance Europe in a way that is intended to engage curious minds of all ages.

“We want to translate as much as we can from the audiences that went to Higgins –

which was lots of kids and their very happy parents – into the context of an art museum,” says WAM Director Matthias Waschek.

Waschek says that a balance was needed to create an exhibition that appeals to both six and sixty-year-old audiences. WAM’s approach is to literally place visual art, artifacts and learning tools for kids at a lower strata of each exhibit, while placing art, arms and armor in the context of social themes and aesthetics at a higher level in each gallery.

“The Knights! exhibition is basically a testing ground of what we can do,” he says.

The initial exhibit includes five thematic sections: Courtly Pursuits, a view into the “fashion” of armor; The Dance of Love and War, an exploration of medieval male/female relationships; Knights of the Round Table, featuring13 helmets of various time periods; The Triumphal Arch, a look at architecture in war; and Good + Evil, learning how arms and armor can be beautiful, but represent violence.  Parents should be aware that a room enclosed within the Good + Evil section features Guns Without Borders in Mexico and Central America, which draws on information from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The projected and framed photographs by three well-respected documentary photographers may not be considered suitable for very young children to view.

Waschek believes that the inclusion of Guns Without Borders gives older kids a perspective on arms that moves beyond fantasy. “In our time and age, kids are exposed to an avalanche of images. Violent images are everywhere. A museum is both a retreat from life sometimes, but it can also be a way of helping people embrace life differently. We embrace life with all of its wonderful and terrible realities. The world is not just a dream world,” he says.

While only a fraction of the 2,000 pieces acquired from Higgins are currently on display, WAM plans to have the entire collection installed by 2020.

“Knights! is very different from Higgins,” says Education Program Assistant Neal Bourbeau. “There are the same pieces, but they are shown in a different way. It’s an advantage because we aren’t just isolating the exhibit to the arms and armor technology; it’s a better chance to talk about the larger culture of the Medieval and Renaissance world.”

Katrina Stacey, Assistant Curator of Education at WAM says that the Higgins collection in its new environment is “a great opportunity for kids and for families, because most people come to an art museum and don’t expect it to necessarily be a welcome place for families. We really want to change that perception,” she says.

Helmutt the Dog Leads the Way for Families with Kids

Families who visit the Knights! exhibit are guided by visual signs that feature the Higgins armored mascot dog, Helmutt. In each gallery, Helmutt invites children to engage in the exhibit by finding interesting objects, or exploring more information on different themes. The exhibit also features iPads with easy-to-access interactive information for both adults and kids. Every screen has a “Helmutt” character that explains the exhibit on a kid-friendly level.

The back of the exhibit area features Helmutt’s House, a family-friendly space where younger children can lounge on brightly-colored pillows, read books, try on costumes and props, and participate in medieval- themed arts and crafts.

Children can’t miss the full-size Batman suit in the main gallery – a reminder that medieval ideas of armor have been translated into modern cultural fantasy characters.

“We’re trying to make the tie between historical armor and contemporary armor, and also between reality and fantasy,” says Stacey.  “Batman, who is called ‘The Dark Knight’ is a great example of that. His costume is actually inspired by armor.”

WAM plans to provide numerous educational programs for school groups similar to the programs that were at the Higgins Armory.  Neal Bourbeau and Nancy Huntington, both previously program educators at Higgins, are now working at WAM to integrate new and innovative programs.

“Our main school audience at Higgins was middle school,” says Huntington. “Our educational programs here at WAM will be similar to Higgins, but in a completely different context. At Higgins, we completely focused on armor. Here, you have a completely other context to look at the collection in. We’re bringing together art, armor and culture for students,” she says.

Bourbeau adds that there is an added benefit in that families and school groups can explore Knights! as well as the larger context of the museum as a whole. “There’s so much more to really discover, even beyond the Medieval and Renaissance time periods,” he says.

WAM will continue its Friday drop-in story hour, and new educational programs will be announced on the museum’s website,

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