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Worcester, MA: Higgins Armory

Worcester, MA: Higgins Armory
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It’s easy to spot the Higgins Armory Museum, located on a hillside just outside downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. The art deco glass-and-steel structure practically shimmers in the sunlight. And could there possibly be another building in New England with a giant knight in shining armor on the roof?

The Higgins houses one of the world’s largest privately held collections of metal arms and armor: some 5,000 pieces, including 100 suits of steel, spread out over four floors.

The museum is a testament to the collecting passions of a single man: industrialist John Woodman Higgins, who was born in Worcester in 1874 and grew up with a fascination for both metalcrafting and the martial arts of the Middle Ages. Higgins bought his first suit of armor in Venice soon after his marriage in 1906. Over the years, he added to his collection of tapestries, weapons, and armor during European summer travels with his family. By 1931, he had so many pieces that he opened a museum in which to display it all.

When kids enter the majestically Gothic Great Hall, built to resemble Europe’s medieval interiors that Higgins so loved, they begin to stir with anticipation. The place feels more like a Hollywood set than a museum, and here, under high vaulted ceilings, you’ll wander past steel uniforms, from the utilitarian Maximilian, a southern German style, to ornate northern Italian field armor etched with bird designs. Special attention-getters are the suits of armor designed centuries ago for children and dogs.

Young imaginations will be set afire as kids encounter what seems like a small army of helmeted knights, including some jousting on full-size stuffed horses. While most of the exhibits highlight the 16th and 17th centuries, including a collection of illustrated martial arts manuals from the 1600s, there’s also armor worn by Roman gladiators and a Corinthian helmet dating to 650-550 b.c. In the Quest Gallery, children can try on costumes and armored helmets, or checkmate their friends on a life-size chessboard.

More than 75,000 people visit the Higgins each year, and it’s a popular setting for weddings and birthday parties. The museum also hosts special events — including swordplay demonstrations — for those interested in the history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

And in case you thought armor was just for knights, check out the front display. There you’ll find ever-faithful “Helmut,” decked out in boarhound’s armor head to tail, complete with a red and white plume.

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