Prize-winning Museum

As mentioned in a facebook post from a few weeks back, as well as in the news section of Medieval Warfare III.3, the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, has to close its doors at the end of 2013 due to a lack of funds (amongst others) to modernize the building constructed between 1928 and 1931. The museum houses one of the largest collections of historical arms and armour in the world, and its closure is a great loss to those of us interested in the military history of the ancient, medieval and renaissance world. Luckily, the collection will be transferred to the Worcester Art Museum. The Art Museum has planned to assign an entire gallery to the collection, though it can take a while before the entire collection will be on display (on the bright side, the Higgens Armory Museum was only able to display some 20 percent). 

The up side aside, it seems to me that this is a story which can be heard too many times these past years. The crisis hits us all, and the cultural section perhaps even the hardest. After all, if one is short on money, visiting a museum is probably not on top of your to-do-list, and governments have many other things to worry about than whether or not a museum will close for a while. Many smaller museums are already encountering financial problems. I know of at least one museum in The Netherlands, Huis Doorn (or Doorn Manor) of which the owners were (or perhaps still are) trying to appeal to the German government to purchase it due to the fact that it displays items of when the German Emperor Wilhelm II spent his exile in the Netherlands. It is unlikely that the German government will ever consent, though, and I cannot really blame them. You’ll not often find a manor stuffed with so many items, many of these likely of dubious worth for anyone other than a hardcore collector. But I’m getting off-topic.  

Within the cultural sector, the military museum may be even more hard-hit than others. Arms and armour are often only interesting for those with an interest in military history, and there are many strange people among us who are not really all that fond of swords and harnesses. The Higgins Armory Museum’s ‘downfall’ may be a herald of things to come. But let us not adopt a too negative view on the future of our martial legacy of medieval times. After all, The Higgins Museum may also be an exception. During my visits of several (military) museums in Europe, I was hardly the only visitor around (though most likely the only weirdo glued to camera and display). Granted, there weren’t many other people in the Military Museum of Istanbul, but who wants to go to a somewhat worryingly nationalistic museum far from other monuments on a rainy day in February, aside from an enthusiast? In addition, many military objects are part of the collections of more ‘general’ historical museums, like the British Museum, and such diverse large collections are less likely to fall than more specialized museums. 

In fact, even military museums sometimes receives the credit they are due. A perfect example is the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr (Bundeswehr Military History Museum) in Dresden, Germany, which has just won the 2013 Micheletti Award in Bursa (Turkey). The Luigi Micheletti Foundation (Fondazione Biblioteca Archivio Luigi Micheletti), founded in Brescia, Italy, in the 80s, is a research centre specializing in 20th century history. It has been leading the debate on industrial archaeology in Italy and has concentrated so far on the history of technology, work and industry. Of course, this has little to do with medieval warfare except the history-aspect of it, but the Bundeswehr Military History Museum focuses more on more recent history (roughly between the 17th and late 20th century) than pre-modern military matters. Nonetheless, the museum contains several medieval and early modern objects, including armour, guns, swords, polearms and artillery pieces, as well as records dating back years, some even to the end of the Middle Ages. I’ve never been there myself, so I cannot say whether it’s reputation well-earned, but it’s one of those museums on my own to-do-list, so might get back to you on this.

I often tend to write long and elaborate history-lessons in my blog related to medieval topics. Luckily for those of you who have been running away screaming every time another blog came around, I really do so for this site. The place has been settled for thousands of years, but it seems that not much happened before the late medieval period. It became the capital of the Margavate of Meissen around 1270, but it only started to earn a place in world history around the 15th century, when it became the seat of  the dukes of Saxony, as well as, later, of the Electors of Saxony. Elector Augustus II the Strong started to gather the best musicians, architects and painters from all over Europe, and many of theme came, especially when he  became king of Poland at the end of the 17th century. Dresden profited greatly from Augustus patronage, and it quickly became a leading city for technology, art and culture in Europe, even into the middle of the 20th century (though with some intervals). In was the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony in the 19th century as well.

Sadly, over 90 percent of the city centre was destroyed during a massive allied bombing run on 13-15 February  1945, during which some 1250 allied bombers dropped nearly 4000 tons of explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, without a doubt one of the less glorious moments for the allies during World War 2. However, the Bundeswehr Military History Museum – a former armory of Kaiser Wilhelm I, turned into a museum at the end of the 19th century, survived the bombing (because it was located at the cities outskirts, not because of some freakishly strange coincidence), and it remained in use as a military museum until 1989, when it was closed. During the years that followed, it was renovated, and it was finally reopened in 2011. 

According to the judges of the Micheletti Award: 

“This is a museum that encapsulates the principles of the EU, unity in diversity and peace. It is making a unique effort to change the grammar of the past, as it is seen and understood by today’s society, in order to bring more hope for peace in the world.” “Although architects place their own landmarks in their designs as Libeskind does, it is clear that to achieve a good result this needs to be balanced with a strong group of policy- and decision-makers and advisors in the museum, and this has been done to great effect.” 

“The museum is proud to be a forum which puts questions without giving answers. However, what is obvious for any visitor is that the museum is not quite neutral: it advocates peace and understanding …It is not a hymn for the bravery of ancestors, but a very honest witness of the past and of the present. Some of the themes of the temporary exhibitions are very daring.”

And what better way to end such a blog-made-eulogy to the Museum – which every one of us should visit, if only to stimulate the local economy and the financial situation of the Museum itself – than a quote from scientists who know their share of history!

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