By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN — Dr. Hayk Demoyan, director since 2006 of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, the only major museum dedicated primarily to the Armenian Genocide in the world, recently visited Massachusetts to speak about the latest activities of the museum, especially in light of the centennial commemorations.
Demoyan has been deeply involved with the commemorations not only in his capacity as the museum director but also as secretary of the coordinating commission created by the government of Armenia in 2011 to promote the commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
Demoyan stated that the state commission to commemorate the centennial is unique because nearly all Armenian organizations throughout the diaspora were included. Demoyan noted that through this body, “we had dialogue. Each community had its ties with the Armenian state commission, not as a subordinate but in a collaborative manner.” Consequently, he worked on many occasions with different committees in different countries, with the cooperation of the Armenian Ministry of the Diaspora and a network was created. Demoyan assessed its work as successful, with the organization of high quality events and exhibitions.
The Yerevan Genocide Museum alone had temporary exhibits shown in more than 50 cities. Two halls of the Paris mayoralty presented Armenian Genocide materials in the heart of Europe, with the mayor present at the opening and the exhibit continuing for 1 ½ months. The Los Angeles Skirball Cultural Center exhibited the first pages of contemporary international newspapers containing articles with visual material about the Genocide, while a huge Russian exhibition took place in one of the world’s largest war museums. Catalogues of the various exhibitions were published in many local languages.
Demoyan had proposed as early as 2012 that the state commission should have branches which should continue in 2016 as a representative body for discussing pan-Armenian issues, and indeed President Serge Sargisian announced in 2014 that this transformation would occur.
Demoyan felt that Armenians should not just sit on their laurels when the year 2015 concludes. Instead, he said, “We must turn the results of 2015, as important and tangible products, into a means for realizing our goals.”
Demoyan expressed one major concern. In the past few years, when the Genocide Museum-Institute wanted to organize events throughout the world, Demoyan said, “it seemed like one portion of the community did not want to participate — in a word, it was a boycott done in an organized manner.”
Meanwhile, in Armenia, in order to preserve the autonomy of the new museum exhibitions, and also on moral grounds, Demoyan said that he and his wife, exhibit and publication designer Lusine Matevosyan, who works for the museum, refused to accept any money in their design and preparation.
He said, “My family made a decision not to assemble a great sum of money, but instead to create a great museum, and a story which we can tell our children. We know our work is a duty and a mission in the memory of the martyrs of the Genocide. We could not make any money from presenting our national tragedy.”
The general expenses of the museum are paid for through a state budget, but donors were found for technology and construction. Demoyan on principle never approaches donors for money. He said, “I expect, perhaps naively, that people will come and ask, how can I help the museum.” There are a few donors, like the general manager of VivaCell MTS Ralph Yirikian, Jevan Cheloyants of Moscow, the Syrian-Armenian Gabriel Jemberjian and two others, who have helped a great deal. There are none from the US, he noted.
The museum only shows about 5 percent of its holdings, which approaches 100,000 items (including 500 unique original Near East Relief photographs). Demoyan said, “We would have to increase our display space five times over in order to show all our feasible topics.”
He added that when he had become director in 2006, there were practically no original items in the museum, so that at first he had to find money to purchase them, and next to win over people with important collections.
He noted, “I can say with happiness and pride that the collection now is in good shape, with many unique objects, including those pertaining to Aurora Mardiganian, Maria Jacobsen, Karen Jeppe, Bodil Bjorn, Jakob “Papa” Kunzler, Armenian sports and uniforms, and Armenian scouts collections. In the coming years we easily can great many new traveling or temporary exhibitions and albums.”
Each day, the museum receives new objects and items. Demoyan said that they are happiest when handwritten survivor accounts or recorded interviews arrive, which happen once or twice a month. An interesting upcoming exhibit will focus on 100 objects, each one with its unique story, which can form a book.
The revamped museum exhibits in Yerevan have had many visitors. From April until the end of October, there were, for example, more than 300 Turkish visitors.
Demoyan said that one of the important approaches adopted by the museum was to present the Armenian tragedy through an individual’s story. Genocide survivor and film actress Aurora Mardiganian is one example. The museum had already been assembling material about her tragic life. In a relative’s house, nearly 100 items, her photographs, articles and writings, newspapers, and her personal Bible had been found. In 2015, several new discoveries were made. First, in January, by coincidence, 1½ minutes additional minutes from her lost film “Auction of Souls” (also known as “Ravished Armenia”) were found in the beginning of a version of a film called “Der Zor” brought to Armenia decades ago by Yervant Setian, a repatriate. On the same reel was a silent film giving information to students on the Armenian Genocide. A hitherto unknown Japanese translation of Mardiganian’s book was located, dated 1923. Then, her traveling suitcase, inscribed with her name and that of the film, turned up.
Soon, the Genocide Museum and Institute will publish a volume on Mardiganian, with separate English and Armenian editions. There also is a catalogue prepared of a traveling exhibition devoted to her experiences (The Road of Aurora). Demoyan hopes to prepare a documentary on her.
Demoyan simultaneously is perpetuating Mardiganian’s legacy in a different way. For the last two years, he has been donating whatever money is raised from his lecture trips on Mardiganian for Syrian Armenian relief. Any revenue from books, postcards and other items sold will be given as aid symbolically in Mardiganian’s name.
The Genocide Museum does not just organize exhibitions. It is an institute for research and study. Of the 65 people working there, 15 are academics concentrating on catalogues, publications, translations and dissertations. The institute is attempting to assemble relevant archival and primary source materials from different countries in a centralized location to save scholars time, trouble and expense. Recently, for example, Demoyan recently copied some Armenian provincial newspapers from the Vienna Mkhitarian Monastery’s library as primary sources.
The museum gives digitalized versions of original memoirs and other documents to students and scholars for use, and provides scholarships for foreign doctoral students to come to benefit from its resources. It publishes the sole periodical in the world focusing on the Armenian Genocide, the English-language International Journal of Armenian Genocide Studies, which is peer reviewed. It provides information to documentary filmmakers and journalists, many of whom frequently ask for information and help.
Demoyan stressed that the museum as an educational and academic institution cannot be part of any political activity. However, its work may indirectly have an influence on political activity. After all, aside from ordinary tourists, presidents and other high-ranking international officials frequently visit the museum as a part of state protocol. In 2015, more than 300 delegations visited and learned about the Genocide and Armenian history.
Demoyan himself is an active public figure in Armenia. He was appointed by President Sargisian as a member of the 36-person advisory Public Council of the Republic of Armenia in 2009, and was elected several years ago to the 65-person Yerevan City Council of Elders as part of the Republican Party faction. He said that in this capacity “I always express my opinions…I work for the general interest.”
Demoyan has a personal message for readers. He exclaimed: “I am very sorry that we only have one Armenian Genocide museum at the centennial. If there are people in Washington who are ready to make a museum, the creative body of the [Yerevan] museum is ready to prepare its design and the exhibits without pay…if the good will and interest exists.” He added that in his opinion, the Washington museum should focus on American humanitarianism, and show how it began with US relief for Armenians. This will be an uplifting experience, he thought, not the sad one a museum solely focusing on the Armenian Genocide would provide.
His present trip includes stops at Boston, Rhode Island, Paris, and Beirut.