By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
WORCESTER – This city is sometimes derisively known as “Wormtown” and at times with a possibly more dignified designation: “Heart of the Commonwealth.” For most visitors, however, Worcester might be better recognized as the “second city.”
“Second” in just about everything. In population. It’s the state’s “second city” in its arts collection. And its most prominent artistic landmark, the Worcester Arts Museum, is often termed one of the biggest of the state’s 228 museums―outside of Boston, that is.
Worcester was named for Worcester, England. It developed as an industrial city in the 19th century due partly to the Blackstone Canal and rail transport. However, the city’s manufacturing base waned following World War II. Long-term economic and population decline was not reversed until the 1990s, when higher education, medicine, biotechnology, and other industry thrived.
The city’s evolution and higher profile as an arts destination is striking in part because Worcester (population 206,518, as of 2020) is somewhat of a dwarf to Boston―more than three times its population with 695,506 in 2020. So, what’s responsible for its improved reputation?
Worcester Art Museum is catalyst
The Worcester Art Museum, known to locals invariably as WAM, is a prime reason for the city’s high rating for visitors.
The art museum, with its 38,000 art objects, is particularly popular with older visitors. “They’re one of our biggest audiences,” said Julieane K. Frost, senior marketing manager of the museum.
Why is that? “We’re what is known as an encyclopedic museum. That means we cover over 50 centuries of art. Almost every corner of the globe is represented in our collection. That means anyone interested in the world’s art finds it here,” she said.
But that’s not all the museum offers. Other attractions include its current showing of exhibits from the London National Gallery. The first one available through March 13 is “Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery, London,” an exploration of the role of love in some of the greatest masterpieces of Western art. The portraits include such famous couples as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, among others. WAM is the first stop for the international tour organized while the National Portrait Gallery is closed for a major redevelopment.
“We became the first museum to have it on tour. It’s a lifetime opportunity to see art in Worcester that you would normally have to visit London to see,” Frost said.
The museum also offers various tours and programs such as floral arrangements involving interpretive art that are particularly popular with older visitors.
Other related attractions
WAM became home to the Higgins Armory Collection in 2014. The collection was previously housed at Worcester’s Higgins Armory Museum from 1931 to 2013, which before its closing contained the largest collection of armor outside of Europe. No surprise that the gallery’s collection is popular with older veterans, according to Frost.
Around the corner from the WAM is the Salisbury Mansion, a historic house museum. Built in 1772 by Stephen Salisbury, the home went through various owners, ranging from a rooming house to a “gentlemen’s club” before being rescued from demolition and moved to its present location near the museum. It’s been restored to look as it did in the 1830s.
The Salisbury Mansion is considered one of the best documented historic house museums in New England. It’s also part of the Salisbury Cultural District (SCD), home to some of the region’s most venerable cultural, historical, educational, and religious organizations, as well as a thriving restaurant, retail, and art community.
About those other names
And those other monikers for Worcester, such as Wormtown? That was the idea of L.B. Worm, a locally famous disk jockey in the late 1970s who gave it to the city because he thought its punk rock scene was lifeless. Worm compared it to death and worms and dubbed the city “Wormtown.”
“The Heart of the Commonwealth” slogan has a less flamboyant past. It became known as that due to its location near the geographic center of Massachusetts. A red heart became the official symbol of the city.