Passports art installation

Harvard Passports Exhibition Highlights Armenian Materials


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A new exhibition called Passports: Lives in Transit is on display at Harvard University’s Houghton Library from April 30 to August 18. It provides an unusual way of thinking about the urgent issue of massive global migration in a historical perspective. It uses passports, visa applications and other documents associated with travelers, emigres and refugees to symbolize what the organizers fear is “the ruins of a modern dream now in terminal crisis — the dream of a globalized word.” The exhibition includes a section showcasing the Armenian Genocide as an exemplar of 20th century exile and escape.

The exhibition materials are drawn from the collections of Houghton Library, Widener Library, Harvard University Archive, Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library, Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, and Harvard-Yenching Library, and are connected with the United States, either as a final refuge or destination, or as a place to flee. Its highlights include the passport from 1857 of George Francis Train, who claimed to be the inspiration for Jules Vernes’ character Phileas Fogg in Eighty Days around the World, Leon Trotsky’s exile papers, physicist Gertrude Neumark Rothschild’s passports, African-American activist (and wife of W. E. B. Du Bois) Shirley Graham Du Bois’s passports and letters, and Timothy Leary’s fake passport photos.

A display case, bearing the title Seeking Asylum, uses the Armenian case to focus on the World War I period and in particular the first major genocide of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were displaced and had to seek asylum throughout the world, including in the United States. The case includes a 1922 telegram from US President Warren G. Harding to Dr. James L. Barton concerning relief work in the Near East.

US President Warren Harding telegram to Dr. James L. Barton, 1922 (Houghton Library, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions Archives, 1810–1961, ABC 16.9.1 (v.2))

It has a bilingual passport originally printed by the Republic of Armenia but modified by Soviet authorities to indicate that the issuer is the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The holder, Ohaness Orberian [Vorperian] of Bitlis, also known as Hovhannes Hairabedian, traveled with it from Yerevan to Constantinople and then to the United States. The organizers of the exhibition would be interested to know if any readers might be aware of the subsequent details of the life of Hairabedian/Orberian in the US. They have found that, according to a notice in the newspaper Hairenik, accessed through the Armenian Immigration Project, in 1919 Misak Baghdasarian of Manchester, New Hampshire was seeking him.

There is further information on a Hovhanes Hanabedian [Hairabedian], possibly the same person, coming to Manchester, New Hampshire in 1922, and on the same individual studying at the University of New Hampshire in Durham in 1924.

Another interesting item on display is the temporary passport of 18-year-old Suschan Mertehikian [Shushan Mardigian] of Sivas (Sepasdia) and her son Mardiros, aged 16 months and born in Lebanon in 1922, issued by the High Commission of the French Republic in Syria and Lebanon. Suschan had met her husband Ardashess in Lebanon while he was serving in the French army. He had joined the French Foreign Legion but had already moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he awaited the rest of his family. In 1924 they joined Mardiros. Mardiros passed away in Buenos Aires in 2013.

Suschan and Mardiros Mertehikian passport (loaned by exhibition co-curator Lucas Mertehikian)

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This passport is on loan from one of the organizers of the exhibition, Lucas Mertehikian, who explained how it helped to inspire him. Around a year and a half ago, he was listening in a course to lectures on the end of world unity, with the problems of immigration bans in the US, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Brexit. Mertehikian made a presentation on a novel dealing with passports for the class, and immediately remembered this passport.

He explained that Suschan Mertehikian is his great-grandmother, and that the document was only recently discovered by his father after the death of Mardiros in 2013. Lucas had never met Suschan, unlike his grandfather, because she died before Lucas was born. And by the time Lucas was born, the family had been largely assimilated into Argentine culture, with the grandparents of Armenian ancestry speaking Spanish and not Armenian to one another.

Lucas said, “This was the first time that I saw anything related to their history of traveling and displacement. This is something that we don’t really talk about in my family. My grandfather would not talk about it.” Evidently his family possessed little else connected with this past, and Lucas said, “For me, it is very difficult to connect and that is why I very much like the passport. It allows me to at least start conceiving of the level of fragility and the vulnerability to which they were subject when they were traveling like this.”

In addition, Mertehikian said, it raises the question of where home lies for people like his grandfather. He was born in Lebanon but did not feel Lebanese. He fled the aftermath of the genocide thanks to the French authorities but did not feel French in any way. He lived for most of his life in Argentina and became largely Spanish speaking but did not fully feel Argentine.

When asked about the unusual transliteration of the Armenian surname Mardigian, Lucas replied, “My last name is spelled in one hundred different ways. My grandparents are buried next to one another and my grandmother’s last name is not the same as my grandfather’s, since they were spelled differently in the documents.”

The last item in the exhibition case is a poster issued around 1918 by the predecessor of the Near East Foundation, the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, requesting donations for assistance to starving orphans.

Poster for orphan aid (Houghton Library, US 102.12 (5))

In a separate case, a medieval Gospel lectionary in Syriac is displayed which is disfigured by what appears to be a bullet hole on one side and a crater on the other. It most likely was desecrated during the Hamidian massacres of 1895-96 near the city of Mardin (today in southeastern Turkey), and bears witness to earlier attacks on Armenians and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire. For more information, see the article “Slash and Burn” in the April 28 issue of the Mirror.

The passports exhibition is guest curated by Lucas Mertehikian and Rodrigo del Rio, friends and fellow doctoral students in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Del Rio was also enrolled in the same class as Mertehikian which sparked their interest in passports, and while the two were taking a later class at Harvard with Professor Jeffrey Schnapp, founder of metaLAB, they came to the decision to do this project. Mertehikian specializes in Latin American studies and his academic work is not directly connected with the exhibition.

Mertehikian declared, “I thought that we could address some of the contemporary issues on forced travel or migration by looking at the history of the passport. Rodrigo and I kept thinking of how one could render this situation today without making people think it is a completely new issue. Furthermore, the US has a longstanding tradition of receiving people who are seeking asylum.”

When they did a survey of the collections of the various Harvard libraries they found a richness of items, which researchers at Harvard usually overlook, in their search for letters, journals, books, manuscripts and other legal documents. Mertehikian said, “We had to leave out many interesting things. For example, there is a collection of passports belonging to American nurses who went to the front right before the end of the First World War and after. We chose the 20th century as the focus, after beginning briefly with the 19th century.”

There are also contributions to the exhibition from fellow Romance Languages and Literatures doctoral student Anthony Otey Hernandez and architectural designer Haydee Casellas. Everyone involved in this exhibition has some personal connection with the issues being raised therein.

Mertehikian, born in Argentina, is of Italian and Armenian descent, and his Armenian grandfather was born in Lebanon. Del Rio, like Mertehikian, came to the US from South America for graduate studies. Born in Chile, he has traveled to various parts of Latin America. Hernandez, born and raised in the Bronx, is of Costa Rican and Greek-Chilean descent. He prepared a case in honor of his mother who passed away in 2017. Casellas is a Puerto Rican designer based in Boston.

The process of preparing the entire exhibition took place under the guidance of Anne-Marie Eze, Houghton Library’s Director of Scholarly and Public Programs. According to the information presented for the exhibition, Eze is British of Nigerian and Jamaican parentage, spent her formative years in Italy, moved to the US to further her career, is married to a German, and is a Brexit refusenik.

From left, Rodrigo Del Rio, Lucas Mertehikian, and Anne-Marie Eze (photo: Aram Arkun)

The exhibition includes a multimedia art installation by Mertehikian and Del Rio created from used passports, including some issued by no longer existing countries, bought on e-commerce sites.

The exhibition, cosponsored by Houghton Library and Harvard University’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is free and open to the public at the Edison and Newman Room of Houghton Library, near the Quincy Street entrance. All photos used above except that of the organizers have been provided courtesy of Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

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