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Heavy Metal

Students uncover "new technologies" of the past in the bowels of the Higgins Armory Museum

By Ian Aldrich

Brandon Light is poised for battle. Dressed in full armor--60 pounds of engraved metal that shields most of his body--the WPI junior looks every bit the 16th-century medieval knight he's pretending to be. When he moves, though, it's slow going. He clangs across the basement floor of the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, his body moving with the flexibility of stone pillars.

"Try running," jokes classmate Derrick Custodio.

Not a chance.

This dress-up session is a long way from the world of computer science (Light's major) and he is as surprised at how heavy and unwieldy the suit is as he is at having it on at all. "I certainly didn't expect to be playing with armor when I came to WPI," Light says. But, in a manner of speaking, that's exactly what he, Custodio, Wilson So, and Orion Samson are doing for their Interactive Project, a degree requirement for WPI undergraduates that challenges them to explore the intersection between technology and society.

Unlike an ancient fight to the death, all sides win from this experience. Students go beyond the classroom and step knee-deep into an interdisciplinary challenge, featuring research and writing, photography, and Web design, as they study and document specific portions of the museum's artifacts in their historical and social contexts.

For the museum, the work enhances the body of knowledge on its collection and makes the information accessible to a wider public--in particular, outside experts, who may study the artifacts via the Web and offer additional details about the relics.

For Light's group, it means looking at more than 800 16th-century pieces, from weaponry to tools to medical devices. On this night, the team's attention is on a halberd, a fearsome looking 8-foot-long poleax designed to penetrate armor, shred flesh, and pierce bone. Wearing white gloves, the students examine the wooden shaft and run their fingers along the intricately designed steel ax head--a testament to man's creative nature and his destructive past.

Their work is part of a larger program between WPI and the Higgins, the only museum in the western hemisphere devoted to the study and display of arms and armor. Through their projects, students get hands-on access to the institution's more than 8,000 artifacts, a collection that stretches across 2,500 years of human history. The program is directed by WPI humanities professor Jeffrey Forgeng, who also heads the Higgins curatorial department.

"The program allows students to look at technology in its human context through the vehicle of a historical setting," says Forgeng, an expert on medieval northwestern Europe. "They're looking at the construction of the artifact so they can begin to formulate questions and theories about it. What was the method of manufacture? Was it repaired? How was it used, based on its form?"

Forgeng also pushes students to explore such things as what an artifact reveals about the person who used it and the artistic style of those who produced it. The outcome for students, he says, is more than a history project; it's a lesson that work in their chosen fields is a product of their own society. "The students see how the technological system is part of the cultural system," he explains. For example, some of society's most advanced technologies have grown out of weapons production. As the Higgins Web site notes, "Armorers and weapon makers have long been technological innovators, and many inventions resulted from military advances."

Forgeng opened the collection to WPI students three years ago; during a typical year, four to six teams at a time examine the artifacts. In addition to Light's group, which focused on Europe, teams this year also studied arms and armor from the Islamic world and Africa.

From left, Derrick Custodio, Orion Samson, Jeffrey Forgeng, Brandon Light, and Wilson So.

The projects take a year, beginning with a term of background research on the history and culture of the region of study, as well as on its arms and armor. From there, teams delve into the collection. They conclude by producing a report, often as long as 200 pages, detailing the culture of the region, its military history, and their research findings on the artifacts. The reports are accompanied by photographs of the relics and a Web site presenting their documentation. (Visit higgins.org/Research/ virtualexhibitions.shtml to see the reports.)

It's an up-close look at history, to be sure. But, says Samson, an aerospace engineering major, the project has shed some light on his own course of study, too. "This was the modern technology of the 1500s and we're learning about the modern technology of the 21st century," he says. "It makes you realize that technology is going to change."

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