Arms and Armor exhibition at the Bruce Museum

The Bruce Museum is creating a novel way of looking at arms and armor. Their upcoming exhibition pairs man-made items with those created in nature.

Located in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Bruce Museum often focuses on the multidisciplinary aspects of bringing together art and science. Starting on March 7th, they will be presenting “Arms and Armor: Evolution and Innovation.”


“Arms and Armor” explores the parallel ways natural selection and human innovation influence the shape, composition and function of structures ranging from turtle shells to chain mail. Weapons and armor from around the world are displayed side-by-side with natural history specimens such as taxidermy, skeletons and fossils. Rather than being grouped culturally or taxonomically, objects are arranged by shared function.

Samurai Helmet – Edo Period, Japan – Bruce Museum Collection. Gift of Mrs. Matthew E. Hanna. Photo by Paul Mutino

Examples abound and include segmented armor that provides lightweight, flexible protection, and thus has arisen hundreds of times in the animal world in species ranging from centipedes to armadillos. Japanese samurai developed a similar style of armor, using overlapping bands of lacquer-plated metal. Heavier plate armor provides better protection but limits movement. In the exhibition, this paradigm is exemplified by juxtaposing the bony plate armor of the giant, extinct fish Dunkleosteus with the steel suits of armor worn by knights during the Middle Ages.


“In terms of protecting ourselves from threats, there are incredible connections between human innovation and animal evolution throughout history,” said Daniel Ksepka, Ph.D., curator of science at the Bruce Museum. “This exhibition highlights those parallels with profoundly captivating objects, from 17th-century dueling swords to the jaws of Tyrannosaurus rex.”

Kukri from Nepal – Bruce Museum Collection
08783. Gift of Heinrich Dueringer. Photo by Paul Mutino

An unexpected example on view compares the Aztec macuahuitl, a club lined with razor sharp obsidian, to the fangs of the vampire bat. These weapons each derive efficacy from razor-sharp edges that easily cut into their target. While the edges of the bat incisors are honed through intentionally grinding away the dentin layer of the teeth, the edges of the human weapon are created by carefully fracturing volcanic glass.

Beyond shared functions, the exhibition explores how intraspecies competition can lead to impressive and even bizarre weaponry. The sharp horns of the steenbok antelope and the prominent pincher-like cranial projections of the Hercules beetle provide striking examples of features that are used to battle rivals rather than ward off predators. The unwieldy horns of the Hercules beetle in many ways mirror the long wooden lances used by jousting knights. Neither structure is ideal for lethal combat, but both are perfect for ritualized competition.

Kulah Khud Helmet, 18th-19th century, Persia – Bruce Museum Collection 16831.03. Gift of Miss Amelia F. MacFarlane. Photo by Paul Mutino

“Many of the most remarkable natural weapons evolve not for hunting or defending against predators but for competing with members of one’s own species,” Ksepka said. “When competition for mates or resources is channeled into ritual aggression, it can lead to structures that are wildly impractical for normal activity, but which give an animal the upper hand in interspecies combat.”


The exhibtion runs from March 7th to August 11th and features objects from the Bruce Museum collection, as well as loans from the Worcester Art Museum, Stamford Museum & Nature Center, Yale Peabody Museum and private collectors. To learn more, please visit the Bruce Museum website.

Suit of Armor – Photo and armor courtesy of Jeff Wasson