Museums Controversies USA

Massachusetts museum merger draws fire from art community

Planned closure of cash-strapped Higgings Armory met with criticism

En garde: the Higgins Armory Museum has met with flak over its decision to close in December and transfer its collection to the nearby Worcester Art Museum

The decision to close a major arms and armour museum in Massachusetts has drawn fire from arts professionals in the US. The Higgins Armory Museum, based in Worcester west of Boston, will close its landmark Gothic-style building in December and transfer its collection of Ancient and Renaissance weapons and firearms to the nearby Worcester Art Museum in January next year.

The move was prompted by the institution's financial difficulties. A statement on the Higgins Armory website stresses that the institution has not been able to sustain its endowment. "Higgins's biggest challenge is our lack of a deep endowment, but we're strong in virtually every other facet of museum operations," says Suzanne Maas, the museum's interim executive director. The Worcester Art Museum will receive Higgins's inventory as well as its endowment of almost $3m.

But Robert Flynn Johnson, the curator emeritus at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is unimpressed by the plan. "The Higgins wasn't dying, it was being killed by mismanagement and neglect. The first action should have been for trustees to hire several years ago a true executive director... and approach wealthy individuals and corporations in Boston to warn the region of the Higgins's need for long-term financial stability," he says.

The next logical step would have been for the Worcester Art Museum to assume management of the Higgins while maintaining the collection in the armory building, Flynn Johnson adds. The Maine-based artist DeWitt Hardy also backs calls for the collection to remain in the Higgins. "Enhancing [the collection] with cogent commentary would not be expensive," he says. "The place to do that is the place where it resides, and the people to do it are probably the Worcester Museum Medievalists."

James Donnelly, the chair of the Higgins's board of trustees, defended the integration initiative, saying: "What Mr Flynn Johnson does not realise is that our trustees have been working on this challenge for several years. Our principal donors say they do not want to write cheques for a deficit that will not be eliminated, and are very enthusiastic about the Worcester Art Museum plan."

The Higgins Armory was founded by the Worcester industrialist John Woodman Higgins in 1929. The museum website describes the Art Deco building, which is reminiscent of a Medieval castle, as a "powerful setting for the museum's collection", which includes more than 3,500 pieces, with arms and armour from Ancient Greece and Rome, Africa and the Middle East. The museum draws around 58,000 visitors annually.

Donnelly says that 80% of the collection remains in storage at the Higgins Armory. At least 1,600 objects will go on display at the Worcester Art Museum, initially in a temporary display venue and then in a purpose built space alongside a selection of Renaissance tapestries from 2015. The Higgins Armory building will, however, be sold though "we will work with preservationists to ensure that it is sold on terms that will allow it to be conserved," Donnelly says.

The building is not the only thing up for sale; more than 480 objects from the collection were consigned to an auction on 20 March in London, co-organised by the independent auctioneer Thomas del Mar and Sotheby's. The sale turned out to be a "white-glove" auction (100% sold by lot); the top lot, an early 18th-century Ottoman saddle cover, fetched £60,000 (with buyer's premium; est £2,000-£3,000).

"These objects are simply not important enough to justify keeping in the collection. This deaccessioning has been peer reviewed by colleagues from other institutions," Donnelly says. "It is gratifying that the funds raised by the auction will help benefit the ongoing display, study and stewardship of one of America’s most important arms and armour collections," says Del Mar.

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Comments

28 Mar 13
16:0 CET

WARREN M. LITTLE, CAMBRIDGE, MA

JWH's will specifies collections must stay in Worcester, but no other location is feasible. Worcester foundations have never fully supported the HAM. Can $$ from deaccessioning collections be used for exhibits? Hope someone has checked with AAM to be sure. Building maintenance a financial nightmare. Close during winter? Cut staff? (seems bloated). It appears that WAM now sees value of collections rather than merely absorbing HAM's endowment as in their last merger attempt. Has anyone explored the possibility that "museum fatigue" will hurt one or the other museum exhibits if they merge as was case with MOT and Children's Museum? If HAM does move, run shuttles from HAM lot to WAM. Teach on the way. As a former HAM Executive Director, I'd hope HAM could remain independent, but I am not taking sides in this debate and hope whatever the solution, HAM will continue to prosper.

26 Mar 13
16:13 CET

DONALD LAROCCA, NEW YORK

Since the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) is also small, underfunded, and understaffed, and has absolutely no visitor parking, perhaps the WAM should be merged with the Higgins Armory Museum, on the Higgins site, rather than the other way around. The Higgins regularly draws twice as many visitors as the WAM already, so clearly they are doing something right. Although not in the downtown, the Higgins has plenty of room for expansion and ample parking. Bring the mountain to Mohammed.

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