Armenian Museum of America Inaugurates New Gallery with Reception
By Aram Arkun
The Armenian Museum of America inaugurated its redesigned main floor introductory gallery, called “Armenia: Art, Culture, Eternity,” during an evening reception on November 15. President Michele Kolligian and Executive Director Jennifer Liston Munson presented their vision for the museum and thanked all those who participated in the renovation work. Despite the snowstorm, the building was packed. Watertown Town Councilor Lisa Feltner was among the guests.
Berj Chekijian, director of finance and building operations of the museum and formerly its executive director, introduced Kolligian, who spoke briefly of the history of the museum and its founding visionaries, led by the late museum board chairman Haig Der Manuelian.
The collection, started in 1971, was moved 30 years ago from the First Armenian Church in Belmont, Mass. to the present location, and, Kolligian said, a new phase in the life of the museum began eight years ago. Vice President Robert P. Khederian of the museum’s board had met Estrellita Karsh, widow of the famous photographer Yousuf Karsh. She was willing to donate photographic prints from original negatives of her husband’s work to the museum, but insisted on changes in the approach used for displays. To this end, she introduced Kolligian and others to Keith Crippen, director of design of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, and to Jennifer Liston Munson.
Crippen recognized the possibilities in the former bank building, Kolligian related, and he and Munson began designing. Simultaneously, almost $1 million was raised by the Armenian Museum’s board, with Khederian playing an important role in this. The Karsh gallery opened in September 2011. Kolligian said, “We were completely changed from what we were before, and it was a very proud moment, and that was the beginning.”
Initially Munson became part of the museum on a part-time but significant basis, designing the Simourian Family Galleries and the Adel and Haig Der Manuelian Contemporary Galleries. At the beginning of this year, she became the executive director of the museum.
Kolligian soon called Munson to the podium. Munson explained that the main goal of her work was to bring joy into the building together with Armenian culture. She said, “I think you might have noticed that the party starts at the street now,” referring to the ability to see vivid images and glimpses of the gallery from outside the museum. Munson continued: “We are beginning a new phase of sharing and connecting with the public and with ourselves, and it is pretty exciting.”
She thanked Kolligian, the museum’s trustees, curators Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, Berj Chekijian, and many others, and noted that she has hired new staff. Aside from her mentor Crippen, Munson acknowledged the presence of Virginia Durruty, formerly her colleague at the MFA, as architectural consultant.
Munson said that her goal was “to articulate the key themes of Armenian culture through objects in our collection.” She said that future gallery renovations will included the topic of the Armenian Genocide, but, “in order to tell this story of unspeakable loss it is my feeling that we first need to show what was lost.”
She concluded with a quotation from former US Ambassador Michael Gfoeller, whose claims even the proudest Armenian could not surpass: “Armenia is not merely a small country in the Caucasus…it is one of the wellsprings of world civilization, on the same level as Mesopotamia. Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Whoever bakes or eats bread, makes or drinks wine, uses metal tools or jewelry, or wears clothing and shoes, is tied by invisible bonds of cultural inheritance to Armenia. In this sense we are all Armenians.”
Munson said the quote sums up the essence of what the newly renovated gallery and the museum is about.
Guests were then invited upstairs to listen to cellist Kate Kayaian, mingle and enjoy Armenian foods.
Earlier that day, Munson gave a more detailed explanation about the changes in the museum to several press representatives. She started with the physical structure, pointing out that the former bank building, started in 1969 and completed in 1970, is an example of the architectural style called brutalism. (Boston City Hall is the most famous example of this style.) The museum moved into this building in 1990.
The building was thought of as “dark and very ugly,” Munson said, and because it had not been renovated for a very long time, “kind of sleepy.” Consultant Durruty was particularly interested in ways of adapting brutalism, and so a new approach was taken to open up the building. As Munson put it, “you experience from the outside the inside, and from the inside the outside.” In other words, it became more accessible. Interior walls blocking windows were replaced by self-standing walls and the dark film on the windows was replaced with light and clear film with an ultraviolet filter. A glowing light panel was set on a timer for 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Munson thought that scenes from Sergei Parajanov film, “The Color of Pomegranates,” set amidst the ruins of Armenian architecture, offered a model, she said, to “use the existing architecture with its full open pattern almost as a metaphor for Armenian church architecture and for Armenian history…and animate it with the objects inside.”
The newly renovated gallery starts near the museum entrance with the Gfoeller quote mentioned above. A map places Armenia in the world today for visitors. A major decision was made to not try to tell the whole history of Armenia. Instead, Munson said, she would “try to introduce the important themes of Armenian culture through the objects in our collection.” Instead of replicating the most important pieces of Armenian art, she would use collection items that represent the important themes. She determined that these included antiquity, the language and the invention of an alphabet, the early adoption of Christianity, the textile tradition, Kütahya ceramics, metal work, Armenian international trade, genocide, and the continuum (post-Genocide Armenian life).
The device used to present these themes was a series of floating platforms. Table cases on the platforms reference the black color of obsidian in Armenia. Munson said that she and Durruty worked to integrate architecture and graphics with the objects, just as she used to do at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Each item was given its own custom mount and desiccants were placed underneath in the cases for preservation purposes, unlike earlier iterations of the museum displays.
The highlights of the museum collection include Armenian manuscripts, specialized collections of textiles and over 200 rugs, coins, Kütahya ceramics, reliquaries, a deep collection of metalwork and various personal objects of witness of Armenian survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
One example of an object of witness is a chalk mold. It is displayed separately as a symbol of survival and remembrance, Munson said. It turned powdered limestone into sticks of chalk and was owned by Krikor Ouzoumian. His life was spared during the 19th century Hamidian massacres when he offered to make chalk for the troops. He expanded his factory, creating a secret room with supplies where his family survived 1915.
Though ultimately he died, his wife leveraged the chalk production to exempt the family from deportation, and when they later came to the US, they only brought this single object with them. It was separated, with one half held by a brother and the other by a sister, but rejoined when donated.
Many items have been taken out of storage and displayed for the first time in the new installation. Furthermore, a family history case has been set up whose contents will be rotated every few months to highlight new items. At present, it showcases a white Greek orphanage dress there which belonged to Araxie Krikorian, with a photo of her wearing the dress while in the orphanage (though dated to 1915, the orphanage was only set up in 1923).
Establishing the aesthetic and logic, or, as Munson said, “this way of talking about things,” has been the first major step in changing the museum. A model of the museum has been created for planning. It comes apart like a dollhouse, to allow thinking to be holistic.
Among what is coming in the future, aside from building repairs and further redesigned areas, including an articulate section on the Armenian Genocide upstairs, are audio guides and interactive displays. A khachkar or cross stone will be on display soon. The Smithsonian had commissioned a new one for its Folklife Festival this year which it sold at a very reasonable cost to the Armenian Museum. The museum will have a more visible external presence too, with the Watertown Planning Board having agreed to allow banners to be placed on the poles outside.
Grants are being sought for expanding in-depth research on the museum holdings and increasing the range of educational and artistic activities.
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