Houshamadyan Project Reconstructs and Preserves Ottoman Armenian History


By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — The website for the Houshamadyan project (www.houshamadyan.org), at first glance, seems to provide a colorful depiction of small-town Armenian life in the Ottoman era — a forgotten subject in history. Upon further exploration, however, visitors realize that Houshamadyan is more than a typical website — it is an interactive archive. Viewers do not merely read the history, they experience it firsthand through written documents, images, artifacts, digitized textiles, depictions of traditional games as well as sound and video recordings.

“The strength and beauty of the Houshamadyan website is that it aggregates and organizes a vast body of information in a way that makes it accessible to a wide audience. Through the presentation of the material in this way, the website allows visitors to explore and find material that they did not necessarily come to the website to look for. This is a form of historical and cultural exposure that is often lacking in today’s world of Google searches and Amazon.com,” said Nora Lessersohn, the project coordinator for the Houshamadyan Association and website.

These resources are aimed at enhancing “the visitor experience and helping make the reconstruction of these lost communities all the more vivid.”

Lessersohn’s involvement in the project came in tandem with an exploration of her own familial and cultural identity. Lessersohn first encountered the Houshamadyan website while researching her own family history and was immediately inspired to get involved. After emailing the project director, Lessersohn submitted her own great-grandfather’s recordings of lullabies to the project while she was living in New York.

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“I also wrote a short narrative piece on my reading of my great-grandfather’s memoirs of his life in Marash,” said Lessersohn, which can be listened to via the Houshamadyan website.

Lessersohn, a graduate of Harvard College (AB’09 in The Study of Religion), has also worked at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once Lessersohn relocated to the Boston area, she became the project coordinator for Houshamadyan and has worked to collaborate with the local community and abroad to expand the project’s reach.

“Through my work with the project, I have become increasingly interested in the issue of representing and communicating historical and cultural identity and complexity. I have also, of course, taken a great interest in the study of Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire, and their interaction with other Ottoman communities and peoples. I hope to explore these themes as well as others in my future studies,” said Lessersohn.

According to the website, the name for the non-profit association, Houshamadyan, references “a special genre of Armenian publications that is characterized by its individuality and is immediately linked to the general subject of our website. These are memorial books, which are also known under the name of compatriotic union publications. ‘Houshamadyan’ is a complex word, made up of ‘housh’ (memory) and ‘madyan’ (book) — which can mean either ‘register’ or ‘parchment manuscript’ — putting the words together.”

Unlike many archives and special collections with rare materials that close their collections to the public or require special permission or payment, the Houshamadyan Association aims to share historical resources with the global community. Association members collect resources and materials from around the world, most often digitized versions of materials, as well as hardcopies of materials, which are stored in their small Berlin headquarters.

Lessersohn noted, “We should emphasize that all the materials we receive from the public are accessible to the public: i.e., if someone is preparing a publication or an exhibition, and would like to use an image or material from our website, we will provide the material without charge – this is the essence of a collaborative website.”

The concept of using online and digital archives remains an emerging form of preservation in academia, which still chiefly relies on standard academic resources such as printed books, conferences or museum exhibitions for preservation and research. “…The world is changing rapidly, and we believe we are using a medium through which we can provide academically serious material in an accessible and attractive way to an increasingly large audience. We are proud to say that, as far as we can tell, our work is in this way innovative and pioneering,” said Lessersohn.

As with any attempt at reconstructing history, the Houshamadyan Association must be mindful of the narrative they put forth and the version of history they represent. Project collaborators say their goal is not to advance a particular historical narrative, but rather to “communicate and recover the life, custom, traditions, cuisine, and environs of the Ottoman Armenian communities.” Lessersohn explained, “We aim to fill in the gaps in Ottoman studies that have not often utilized Armenian primary sources, as well as the gaps in both Turkish and Armenian nationalist historiographies that often downplay the Ottoman lived reality of the Armenian people. In this way, we aim also to be the means by which Ottoman memory may be returned to the Armenians.”

Given both the destruction and suppression of Armenian-Ottoman resources, as well as the dominant historical narrative put forth, Houshamadyan faces the difficult task of “reconstructing a lost world: material possessions, architectural structures, family documents, ways of life, and historical narratives, have all been lost.” Material possessions, architecture, ways of life, and countless sources have been lost and it is no easy endeavor to piece them together, nor are there countless archival sources or teams of historians. “As col- laborative website, we are able to draw on the materials and memories of people from all over the world, and rebuild and reconstruct what we can, with the materials we are given,” said Lessersohn.

Houshamadyan’s small team consists of project director and chief editor, Vahé Tachjian; art director, Silvina Der-Meguerditichian; a few translators and authors; President of the Houshamadyan Association Elke Hartmann and Lessersohn. Houshamadyan has partnered with the Otto-Friedrich University, Bamberg (chair of Turkology, Bamberg, Germany), Haigazian University (Beirut), the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (Yerevan) and the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, where Lessersohn recently delivered a lecture on the project in November.

Houshamadyan’s success as a historical endeavor rests entirely on collaborative efforts. The team not only hopes to share these resources with the global community, but it also welcomes the public to get involved in the project by actively preserving history. Readers are encouraged to visit the site, to join their newsletter, ask for additional information or provide project members with materials of any sort that they would like to contribute to the project. “We are always looking for new information and connections,” said Lessersohn.

Houshamadyan is currently fundraising for the publication of their first book, Ottoman Armenians, Vol. 1: Life, Culture, Society. The book will be an extension of the website, with new articles, extended versions of current projects and more than 200 images, rather than just a replica of the site. While Houshamadyan is chiefly a web-based archive, the Houshamadyan team says they also value the tactile and representative importance of physical archives and preservation of hard copies of materials. “We believe it is important to have such a publication, to keep in libraries and family homes, to give to others as a gift or an educational tool, and to reach audiences who do not necessarily have access to the internet […] it will only add to the strength and reach of our work if we produce materials in all forms (website, books, exhibitions, workshops, etc). It is always good to express oneself in as many ways as possible, to reach as many people as possible.” Coordinators hope to eventually translate this first publication and future publications, into Armenian and Turkish. Visitors can already access the website in both English and Armenian, and translation into Turkish is forthcoming. Also in the works is a full exhibition and accompanying workshop in Berlin in 2013.

To get involved with Houshamadyan or make a contribution to the publication of their forthcoming book, visit http://www.houshamadyan.org/ or email directly at houshamadyan@gmail.com.

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