To step into the Great Hall of Worcester's Higgins Armory Museum is to be swept back to the age of chivalry. The vaulted blue ceiling, yellowish-gray stone walls festooned with shields and other fighting gear, and, most of all, the ubiquitous figures in gleaming armor create the aura of medieval Europe - right here in the western Massachusetts industrial hub.
That industrial heritage, personified in engineer-businessman John Woodman Higgins, explains the somewhat odd presence of an armory museum in Worcester. Mr. Higgins's work - the fabrication of metal objects at the now-defunct Worcester Pressed Steel Company - was also his passionate hobby. Impelled by a love for metalwork and an early fascination with the tales of Ivanhoe and King Arthur, Higgins began collecting medieval armor around the turn of the century. For many years he made frequent forays to Europe in search of the gleaming relics of knighthood.
To house the collection and to provide Pressed Steel with a corporate headquarters, he built a four-story edifice of glass and steel that is itself reminiscent of a bolted and riveted knight's helmet. The building was considered wildly innovative at the time it was constructed in the late 1920s and is now in the National Register for Historic Places.
Along with the suits of armor Higgins amassed came a vast array of related artifacts - swords, crossbows, tapestries, and bits of clothing. Some of these undisplayed items (originally thought of as useless junk, in some cases) are proving to be quite valuable in their own right, says museum director Warren Little. ''We might have quite valuable things that have never seen the light of day,'' he says. His opinion was shared by the curator of the Tower of London, who recently visited the Higgins. Among the things that caught his eye was an extremely rare fragment of a garment worn under a knight's armor, dating from the 14th century.
Such things excite the experts. What excites laymen is the museum's spectacular display of knightly finery. Mr. Little, whose enthusiasm for the museum may only be surpassed by that of young ''Dungeons and Dragons'' devotees who frequent the place, notes that New York's Metropolitan Museum has a larger collection of armor, but that much of it is in storage. ''We maintain that ours is the largest display of armor in the Western hemisphere,'' he says.
The 75 suits of armor standing sentry in the Great Hall - or posing on horseback, or locked in combat - span the mid-15th to the late 16th centuries. They range from somewhat nondescript ''compound'' suits, with parts repaired or replaced over the years, to remarkably detailed suits of parade armor. Some of the latter are works of superb artistry, covered with engraving and embossed bronzework.
Even the most basic suit of armor would have cost a medieval knight the equivalent of $30,000, Mr. Little explains. So all but the wealthiest nobles did what they could to ''mix and match'' parts in an effort avoid buying more than one suit. Some of the elaborate parade ensembles would today go for over $2 million, Little estimates.
The museum also has a number of suits of horse armor on display, including an extremely rare piece dating from Roman times. There's even a dog in shining armor - a model of a boar hound decked out in mail and steel.
Museum director Little says a resurgence of interest in military history is one factor behind the Higgins's growing popularity. Visitors in 1978 numbered 24,000; in 1983 40,000.
Under Little's guidance, the museum is about to break out of its traditional image as a montage of fascinating, howbeit static, exhibits. If current plans pan out, there'll be a new emphasis on participatory displays, where visitors can get a feel for how armor was made and what a knight's life was actually like. Plans call for the use of film and sound, and part of what is now a parking area may become the site of a seige tower and a tournament field.
for jousting demonstrations.
The museum can be reached from Boston by taking the Massachusetts Turnpike to I-495 north, then on to I-290 west. Take the Burncoat Street exit from I-290, to the right. From Burncoat turn left on Randolph. Before long you'll see Higgins's glass and steel masterpiece. Admission is $2 for adults; $1 for children 5-16.