Virginia Holocaust Museum to Develop Permanent Armenian Exhibit


Tim Hensley, librarian of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, in front of the ALMA traveling exhibit (STEVE BARSAMIAN PHOTO)

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

RICHMOND, Va. — With only a handful of the 16 Holocaust and genocide museums and 150 Holocaust and genocide study centers in the US containing substantial sections devoted to the Armenian Genocide, the decision of the Virginia Holocaust Museum to develop a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide is all the more laudable and impressive. The museum hosted a special event on December 11 to call attention to its temporary Armenian exhibit and spur donations of suitable artifacts and financial support for the forthcoming permanent exhibit. The event was organized by the Armenian Education Center (AEC) of Virginia.

The Virginia Holocaust Museum was founded in 1997 in several rooms of Temple Beth El but as it grew, in 2000, it was gifted an old tobacco warehouse by the Virginia State Legislature.

One of its most famous exhibits, which opened in 2008, is the only existing replica of the Nuremberg Trials Courtroom. Its stated mission is teaching tolerance to all through education. AEC Director Arpi Bouroujian and committee member Barkev Baronian served as the masters of ceremonies. Tim Hensley, the librarian of the museum, spoke about the museum’s plan for a permanent exhibit, titled “The Whole World Failed,” which will include materials on a variety of 20th- and 21st- century genocides and the genocide of the American Indians.

The Armenian Genocide will be a major part of this exhibit. Hensley estimated that it would take some two to two-and-one-half years to prepare the Armenian section. He called for community support. While financial donations would be appreciated, even more important are original personal accounts, photos, letters, and other artifacts connected to the Armenian Genocide. If families do not wish initially to donate such items, the museum can also make high quality reproductions.

Historian Aram Arkun (also the author of this report) who recently moved to the Richmond area, related the historical connection of Richmond with Armenians, and the involvement of Virginians in the raising of aid for Armenian Genocide victims, including the sponsorship of a Near East Relief orphanage and school on the Greek island of Syros. Arkun spoke on the importance of the role of museums in presenting information on the Armenian Genocide and genocides in general.

In the absence of the immediacy of contact with genocide survivors, multimedia museum exhibits can convey something of the immense tragedy of mass murder and violence to those unfamiliar with such events. They can help sensitize the public to the danger signs of future genocides along with memorializing terrible episodes from the past that still face organized campaigns of denial today. Armenians, Jews and other communities of survivors and descendants of survivors of genocide have the obligation to help others understand great oppression through knowledge acquired at such high cost as a first step toward prevention.

Dr. Roger W. Smith, professor emeritus of government at the College of William and Mary, who is a specialist on comparative genocide and has served as chairman of the Zoryan Institute’s Academic Board of Directors since 2004, has been helpful to the AEC in its endeavors. Smith reflected on the importance of education for prevention of genocide. The opening up of the Virginia museum to genocides other than the Holocaust was tremendously important, he felt. Tears and sadness over past tragedies were not sufficient. For this reason, Smith said, “I think this project is a symbol of hope and resurrection.”

Bouroujian and Baronian expressed their appreciation to the Virginia Holocaust Museum for establishing what will be a permanent memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, and stressed the importance of obtaining donations of artifacts. Bouroujian acknowledged the presence of genocide scholar Dr. Herbert Hirsch, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Political Science, and most recently, author of Anti-Genocide.

Dr. Vigen Guroian, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, was also present in the audience.

Fr. Mesrob Hovsepyan of St. James Armenian Church of Richmond was the final speaker of the afternoon. He expressed the gratitude of the Armenian community toward the museum for providing a space for the temporary and for a permanent exhibit — a place for remembrance.

The afternoon event was well attended, with more than 100 people present from Richmond, other parts of Virginia and Washington, DC. It was covered by Haykaram Nahapetyan, a Washington-based correspondent for the H1 state television channel of the Republic of Armenia.

The Virginia Holocaust Museum is hosting the Watertown, Mass.-based Armenian Library and Museum of America’s folding panel display, “The Ongoing Armenian Genocide: Death, Denial and Desecration,” devoted to the Armenian Genocide and its denial, from November 2011 to July 2012. It may also be shown at the University of Richmond for several months after this. The exhibit is funded by a grant from Haig and Adele Der Manuelian, Vigen Der Manuelian and Lucy Der Manuelian in memory of their parents, Armenouhy and Manuel Der Manuelian.

Said Haig Der Manuelian, “When our committee — myself as chairman, Elisabeth Kenosian and Arakel Almasian — worked on this exhibit for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours, it was with a view to placing it at non-Armenian sites. We do not need to preach the Genocide to the choir. It took two years but we finally have accomplished placement in such a great situs by working with the local Armenian church group in Richmond, including Anne Norris. Importantly, that Holocaust Museum intends to develop, in time starting now, their own original permanent Armenian Genocide exhibit and exhibits on other genocides besides the Holocaust. They have asked and we have agreed to allow them — after July — to place this exhibit successively at two universities in the Richmond area.”

The AEC was established in 2001. In addition to helping the Virginia Holocaust Museum project, it was instrumental in the adoption in 2001 by Virginia’s Board of Education of the mandate to teach the Armenian Genocide as part of World History, and the development of two lesson plans. Beginning in 2006, it has run an annual essay contest on the Armenian Genocide for Virginia high school students who vie to win a $1,000 prize. Its website provides information to educators (http://www.armenian-educationcenter.org).