Armed for a challenge

Nikki Andersen brings an impressive track record to her new job as head of the Higgins Armory

By Pamela H. Sacks

Just days after taking the helm of the Higgins Armory Museum, Nikki Andersen could be found chatting with people at the Celtic Festival in Webster.

Ms. Andersen’s intent was more than social; she was on an intelligence-gathering mission to learn what people want when they visit the Higgins, which has a vast collection of arms and armor representing several thousand years of warrior history.

“If people are thinking of coming to the Higgins, how do we extend an invitation across the Web? How are we welcoming people, engaging them while they’re here and making them excited about returning?” Ms. Andersen reflected one recent morning in her office on the first floor of the museum’s glass and steel Art Deco building in Worcester.

Over the last decade, museum professionals have been grappling with the sea change wrought by the digital revolution. Four years ago, the buzzword was “interactive.” Today, “engagement” is the goal.

Ms. Andersen, who has been in her new post for about a month, said visitors come to a museum seeking a personal connection through both intellect and emotion.

“We have to allow each visitor to craft their own experience,” she said. “If we haven’t provided a variety of stories and entry points to create a personal connection, the experience has no lasting impact.”

If anyone is able to meet those demands, it may be Ms. Andersen. She has spent more than 30 years as a museum professional, many of them at the highly successful Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. That institution grew by leaps and bounds during her tenure, which lasted from 1971 to 2005. The museum had 200,000 visitors annually in the mid-1970s; last year, 1.5 million people passed through its doors.

“It was one of the first museums to change its perspective from developing programs for to developing programs with the community,” she said. “It was a huge, transformative experience.”

Ms. Andersen, who grew up in Doylestown, Pa., joined the staff in Indianapolis after earning a bachelor’s degree in American history from Kutztown University and a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Missouri.

“I handed in my thesis on Friday and started on Monday, never thinking it would be the bulk of my professional career,” she said.

Every four or five years, Ms. Andersen was offered a new position on staff, with completely different responsibilities. She recalled one project in particular, after the concept of public participation had been introduced. The museum wanted to help the children of Indianapolis live successfully in a world with a global perspective. She talked to people from all walks of life. The message was that the children probably would never do much traveling, but they needed to be immersed in other cultures.

As just one part of her research, Ms. Andersen spent a week at the Kindermuseum in Amsterdam, studying its cultural immersion programs. She and her team went on to develop a project called “Global Perspectives.” It was put on the back burner because of other priorities but is now on track, and she’s thrilled that it is scheduled to open next year.

By 2005, Ms. Andersen was ready for a change. She moved on to Winterthur, the prestigious decorative arts and Americana museum in Delaware founded by Henry Francis du Pont. She took a position that entailed developing children and family audiences, but not long after her arrival, museum officials decided not to move in that direction.

Eager to be more involved in the lives of her two nieces at that point, Ms. Andersen returned to Pennsylvania and became a museum consultant.

One of her clients was the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. She advised the staff as it planned a move to larger quarters. Jennifer Bush, director of education at Please Touch, said Ms. Andersen is a terrific researcher who is respected for her expertise in family learning and methods of evaluating events, activities and galleries.

“She is revered in our field,” Ms. Bush said. “I think she’s truly the complete package – marketing, education, exhibits, research. That’s something invaluable.”

Ms. Andersen, who was meticulously dressed in a crisp navy-blue pant suit, said she is single and is moving to a condominium in Holden with her Welch corgi, Skipper, and her calico cat, Peaches.

After she was asked about a photograph on her desk, she revealed that she used to own horses and ride competitively in hunter-jumper and dressage events. She joked about the number of broken bones she suffered over the years. She decided a few years ago that riding was consuming too much of her time and sold her horses. She enjoys traveling and, among other adventures, has been to the Arctic Circle to watch the migration of polar bears.

As the subject turned to the Higgins, Ms. Andersen ticked off the positive aspects she intends to build on. At the Celtic Festival, she discovered that many people think the Higgins is about to move to the Worcester Auditorium. That is not the case. The museum board has simply agreed to a feasibility study.

“Ultimately, the question is what best serves the museum and the public,” Ms. Andersen said, adding that there are challenges in making the present building conducive to the preservation of the collection. “Right now, the Great Hall doesn’t meet those standards,” she said. “The operating expenses are huge.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Andersen sees real potential in the current location; she recalled that she found the quirky building an impressive sight the first time she laid eyes on it.

She and the Higgins staff plan to rewrite the museum’s mission statement, reinvigorate the children’s gallery and forge ahead with plans to turn the building’s surrounding acreage into a new “arrival experience.” She is excited that “The Age of Armor,” the museum’s traveling exhibition, will return home and open Oct. 16. She views the staff as “a real brain trust,” particularly now that curator Jeffrey L. Forgeng has gone from quarter time to full time.

“Everything is teamwork and collaboration,” Ms. Andersen remarked with a smile. “I honed that skill at the children’s museum.”