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‘The Age of Armor’ returns to Higgins after 5-year tour

By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

The “Age of Armor” has come full circle.

Five years ago, the Higgins Armory Museum mounted the comprehensive exhibition and then sent it out on tour. Its rare pieces – representing warrior and cultural history from Greek antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond – made stops at a dozen institutions across the country.

William MacMillan, the conservator at the Higgins, traveled to each venue to install some 70 artifacts and returned to take them down. “It was a lot of frequent flier miles,” Mr. MacMillan joked the other day.

Now “The Age of Armor” has returned to the place it started, and 34 pieces will be on display at the Higgins through the end of April. A wide range of programming accompanies the suits of steel, coats of mail and an assortment of tools of the trade.

“It really reflects the best of what Higgins has to offer – some of our newest acquisitions,” the museum’s executive director, Nikki Andersen, said. “While the show was on the road, we added new pieces to our collection, and we swapped them into the traveling exhibition,” she explained.

The show is arranged chronologically. A Corinthian helmet dating to 550 B.C., stunning in its simplicity, stands across from a full suit of finely articulated Maximilian armor made in southern Germany around 1525.

“When you look from the Greek helmet to the Maximilian suit of steel, it’s from the simple to the ornate,” Ms. Andersen said. “The way they’re positioned, you can turn your head from left to right and see how arms and armor quickly evolved over a thousand years.”

During the period the exhibition was on the road, technology evolved in myriad ways. Those advances have provided the Higgins staff with opportunities to bring history alive and create a cutting-edge educational component.

One example is a touch-screen quiz created by college interns that tests a visitor’s familiarity with armor and its time. The quiz is graded – all in good fun, of course. Those with limited knowledge are relegated to “squire” status; the historically savvy are dubbed “your majesty.” It’s tempting to return for a second try because the questions change. Ms. Andersen decided to see what would happen if she deliberately answered every query wrong. She was informed that she would likely remain a squire for quite some time.

“The Age of Armor” was a big draw at each stop across the country. Most people living outside the Northeast have no opportunity to see objects that are the stuff of legend, Mr. MacMillan said. “Everybody has that romantic, knight of yore interest,” he added.

Many of the museums created activities with a Renaissance theme, according to Anne Jones, who is the director of Smith Kramer Traveling Exhibitions of Washington, D.C., the agency that arranged the tour. One of them set up a catapult, although Ms. Jones said with a laugh that she wasn’t sure what – or who – might have been launched from the contraption. “It was those ancillary activities that made the exhibit so successful,” she said.

Mr. MacMillan recalled a museum that added a photo exhibit of members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a living history group devoted to reviving the Middle Ages “as they ought to have been.”

In the same informative and sometimes lighthearted vein, the Higgins is offering its own monthly programming. This month, the focus is on modern armor. Devon Kurtz, director of education, noted that one feature will be a visit from a noncommissioned officer who has been in the field and is now attached to the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, the Army research laboratory.

“We will do a presentation and roundtable discussion between a 14th-century knight and a modern soldier,” Mr. Kurtz said. “They’ll talk about what they’re wearing and why and what they hope it will do for them.”

The museum is also working with a U.S. Air Force detachment in Iraq that is involved in a program called Operation Soccer Ball. As part of the peacekeeping effort, the soldiers are distributing balls so that they can interact with Iraqi children and families. Those who wish to participate can donate a soccer ball and get free admission to the museum. Mr. Kurtz requested that the balls be as generic as possible and not be inscribed with company names.

Along with the monthly programming, the museum also will be showing modern films in which arms and armor play a role.

“We are celebrating the exhibition’s triumphal return,” Ms. Andersen said. “By changing the programming thematically around the exhibit, we can reintroduce the city and Central Massachusetts to the many stories that arms and armor can tell about the past, present and future.”