“Art, Craftsmanship, & History”

WAM objects conservator Bill McMillan explains his love for this 17th-century Japanese helmet.

An Interview with objects conservator Bill McMillan

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘art’ and ‘Worcester’ in the same sentence? The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) has been an iconic part of the growing Worcester art scene since its opening in 1898. Its dedicated staff wants the community to recognize and share in all that the Worcester art scene has to offer, so over the next few weeks, the New Worcester Spy will present interviews with WAM staff members about their favorite pieces in the museum and why art matters in Worcester.

By Timothy Jarvis

Bill McMillan is the objects conservator for the Higgins collection at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). The collection he is in charge of is about two years old; it came to the WAM when the Higgins Armory in Worcester closed in 2013.

WAM objects conservator Bill McMillan explains his love for this 17th-century Japanese helmet.
WAM objects conservator Bill McMillan explains his love for this 17th-century Japanese helmet.

As the objects conservator, McMillan is responsible for the care and conservation of all of the Higgins pieces. He primarily looks after the arms and armours sets from the Higgins Armory; there are about 2,000 pieces he has to work with.

McMillan told the New Worcester Spy about his favorite piece from the collection, a 1618 Japanese Helmet in the form of a conch shell with 33 spikes on it. It’s a rather unique helmet – “a combination of art, craftsmanship, and history,” as McMillan puts it.

At one point in its long existence, it was lacquered, or coated with lacquer, a standard practice in the 17th century used for sealing wax. Lacquer is a clear or coloured wood finish that dries by solvent evaporation or a curing process that produces a hard, durable finish. But, after centuries of wear and tear, a significant amount of lacquer has faded off the helmet, now revealing the detail and craftsmanship of the distinctive piece.

The conch shell helmet was more of a ceremonial display in 1618 Japan rather than practical combat armor. In early 17th century Japan, weapon-making was on the decline because the Shogun era was coming to a close. Although displays of wealth were frowned upon in 17th century Japan, an area one could get away with it in was armour display. This is where things such as McMillan’s conch shell helmet come into play. Also, as there was an “era of peace,” Shogun armour like this later became more and more common among the wealthy.

Whoever the conch shell helmet belonged to in 1618 was someone of, “higher position, with some serious wealth behind them,” McMillan says.

The process itself to create the piece took a great deal of craftspeople, each with a unique, diverse set of skills: it involved a metalsmith, a lacquer, a guilder, and a textile worker.

McMillan said that the difference between this helmet and most Japanese helmets is like, “the difference between buying a baseball hat at Walmart and a hat from a haberdashery.”

The history of the piece aside, McMillan spoke about how the Japanese helmet was acquired by WAM. It first came to the Higgins Armory in 1951, where it remained until the museum’s closure in 2013; it was then transferred to the WAM.

McMillan said, “Higgins was interested in armour but he was also interested in metal work as he ran a metal company… so, this piece would have been in his sweet zone, like it is for me.”

John Woodman Higgins was a prestigious industrialist in Worcester who owned the Worcester Pressed Steel Company. Higgins traveled Europe in the 1920s and collected arms and armour from the medieval period. With all he had collected, Higgins then decided to open a museum in 1931.

McMillan spoke about why the conch shell helmet is a good piece for Worcester. He said this piece is something the city can appreciate because of its industrial background.

“As far as the armour collection it’s just another piece in the puzzle,” he said. “Armour tends to be very Euro-centric, so this shows people from other cultures. Also, the piece itself is just beautiful and people from Worcester can enjoy that.”

In conclusion, McMillan spoke about the Higgins closing and the collection coming to WAM.

“We’ve (Higgins and WAM) have collaborated in the past; we actually had some pieces on loan here,” he said. “It was the softest landing that could have happened for the Higgins collection, and I was thrilled it came here.”

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