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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oh What a Knight

Oh What a Knight:
Higgins Armory shows medieval weaponry at Pequot Library
(Posted to 1/8)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved

Southport, CT – Eyes were wide and the audience attentive as the enthusiastic presenter showed fearsome examples of ancient weaponry.

The speaker was Neal Bourbeau, Program and Outreach Manager of Higgins Armory Museum of Worcester, MA and the program he was presenting at Southport’s Pequot Library Saturday afternoon was “The Knight’s Tale.” His goal was to provide a general overview about armor and the museum itself, and have audience members join him to partake in elements of his demonstration.

The weaponry he had brought was displayed on two long draped tables on a stage in the library’s high-ceilinged meeting room and included mail armor, swords, helmets and a shield. Related books from the library’s collection stood on end along the front edge of the stage.

Children’s Librarian Susan Ei, who had coordinated the Higgins visit, introduced Bourbeau and was glad for the turnout given the snowy climate in which the area had been immersed after a snowstorm passed through the previous afternoon. “I’m guessing every one of you called to make sure we were having our program,” she mused.

Bourbeau mentioned that the museum does outreach programs throughout New England primarily, though he has traveled to New York and New Jersey and even as far as Tennessee to present his program.

To a full house comprised of a mix of grandparents, parents and children ages 5 to 15, Bourbeau began by speaking about the museum itself. It was founded by industrialist John Woodman Higgins to showcase his personal collection of arms, armor and other metal items. Though the four-story building is of an art deco architectural style on the exterior, the interior is dressed in gothic décor. The collection is principally steel plate armor and includes 70 authentic suits, but also Greek, Roman and Persian pieces. In all, there are about 5,000 items. The museum is the only one in the country that specializes in the category.

Bourbeau mentioned that all the items he brought with him were reproductions. “The authentic pieces don’t travel well as steel corrodes and breaks down, particularly because of the oils and acids from our hands. The same thing happens with wood.”

Challenging the audience, Bourbeau asked for the definition of a knight. “Knights were from a long long time ago,” said one child. “They were hired warriors that worked for lords in medieval times,” said another. Bourbeau clarified that being a knight meant you were mounted on a horse with heavy armor – specialized cavalry essentially given land in return for service.

There ensued a demonstration of items that included a shield, chain mail and helmet. In each instance, he brought a child up to help him illustrate their usage. Redheaded 10-year-old Jack Whitten, from Fairfield, gripped a round steel shield and defended himself from Bourbeau’s mock blows with a wooden sword. Kayla Scala, 6, wore a helmet as Bourbeau explained why it was curved -- to allow weapons to glance off the surface when struck. Owen Swenson, 4, held chain mail as Bourbeau drew a steel sword across it, thankfully resulting in no ill effect to the boy.

The presenter showed other intimidating items such as a mace, which elicited a collective “ooh” from the audience, given its menacing multi-angled metal head. More “oohs” followed as he held up other artifacts.

Audience members were impressed. “It’s great for Pequot Library to provide this educational advantage,” said Fairfielder David Harvey, 46, attending with wife Ann and children Robbie, 7, and Mary, 5. “Lego has a little knight castle that Robbie has played with and enjoyed. But this is really a first experience for him.”

Of son Owen’s view of the program, Genevieve Swanson, 34, said, “This is his major area of interest. He’s a devoted fan of medieval knights, history and armor. He really is obsessed. I just jumped at this.”

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