Illumination: Gospel Book fragment, 1477, Gift of Adele and Haig Der Manuelian (photo courtesy Armenian Museum of America)

Armenian Museum of America Uses Ancient Treasures to Excite New Interest


WATERTOWN — The Armenian Museum of America (ALMA) has been closed to visitors since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic last year, but inside its landmark building in Watertown, the staff have been busier than ever, researching its collections, preparing new exhibits and finding ways to connect through the media and Internet with the public.

Dr. Alisa Dumikyan (photo Aram Arkun)

For a museum to be able to operate effectively, it is not enough to possess an extensive and interesting collection. Well-funded research is necessary for identification of items and their proper presentation in exhibits. Fortunately, the museum was able to bring scholar Dr. Alisa Dumikyan from Armenia to help in this work. She was working in France with a post-doctoral grant, related Berj Chekijian, the museum’s director of finance and building operations, when Michele Kolligian, president of the board of trustees, made the connection with her.

Dumikyan was born in the village of Metsavan in the northern Armenian province of Lori. She went to school in the nearby town of Tashir before going to Yerevan for her higher education. She studied at the Valery Bryusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences from 1995 to 2000 and after graduating, was invited to teach there for about a decade. She also taught at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University and the French University while continuing her education.

After a master’s degree from the National Academy of Sciences in 2008, Dumikyan worked as a senior researcher in the Academy’s Institute of History while completing her doctorate, which concerns 19th century issues in French Armenology, and afterwards led to the Armenian-language book Issues in the History of Ancient and Early Medieval Armenia in French Armenology of the 19th Century” (Yerevan, 2014).

At the museum, Dumikyan explained that it was necessary to first reexamine the collections to see what they encompass. Initial categorizations by donors were not always correct. She presented a number of items that she had been researching and observed, “Most manuscripts here are damaged and don’t have colophons. So if nothing exists on the work, you have to study the period, the writer and the illustrator. This takes much time.”

Triptych, 1743 Gift of Paul and Vicki Bedoukian. This at one time may have held a relic of the cross, Dumikyan surmises, and was from Charek Monastery in Utik Province. (photo courtesy Armenian Museum of America)

There was a manuscript listed as from the 16th century, for example, which she realized might not be from that period. It was not a hymnal as described, but actually a “manr usumn” liturgical musical codice, with melodies indicated by the khaz type of Armenian musical notation. Dumikyan began contacting experts in the Republic of Armenia to confirm her suspicions.

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This type of work was important in the Cilician Armenian kingdom, and indeed, it was confirmed by Arusyak Tamrazyan in Yerevan that it dated from the 14th century, making this a particularly valuable item of the museum.

Examining the museum’s Manrusumn, 14th c. (Surkhat, Crimea, the Armenian medieval liturgical-musical codex) (photo Aram Arkun)

Dumikyan showed a set of four letters from the 17th century from Armenian merchants of Julfa, who had a great trading network. The letters are difficult to read because of the handwriting and the dialect, which borrows words from various non-Armenian languages. Dumikyan did a partial interpretation and sent copies to various experts in Armenia and the US for their help, which she is awaiting at present.

The museum had a small 15th-century Gospel manuscript section of six pages with illuminations, about which it was only known that the illustrator’s name was Bishop Stepannos. It was a gift from Adele and Haig Der Manuelian to the museum. Lusine Sargsyan at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, or Matenadaran for short, in Yerevan, confirmed that the illustrator appeared to be the 15th century Stepannos of Arinch.

Dumikyan said that it is a beautiful work and amazingly, she found the remaining sections, which were in Haroutiun Kurdian’s collection, which he in turn had donated to the Mkhitarians of Venice. She is awaiting a confirmation letter from the latter, which will allow bringing back together these manuscript pieces, at least in a virtual fashion.

Polished black pot, 14th-12th Century B.C., Gift of Hakop Alimian (photo courtesy Armenian Museum of America)

She then pointed out a pot or jug which was ascribed to Van’s kingdom of Urartu, and initially was thought to have been used to hold food. She suspected this was not correct, as its ornamentation or design was not characteristic of the works from the kingdom. She sent its image and accompanying information to the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Yerevan, which determined that it was much older, dating from the 14th to 12th centuries. This is another major discovery which is a coup for the Armenian Museum. Now there are other pots in the collection which must be similarly reevaluated.

Of course, she pointed out that the museum also has many items which are truly from Van’s kingdom of Urartu. Many are gifts from Paul and Vicki Bedoukian, which have been exhibited in the past.

Dumikyan’s work extends to a great variety of items and artifacts. She had found a rare lunar calendar/map, the origin of which was unknown. One copy exists with the Mkhitarians in Venice, who assumed it might be a part of the Haigazian dictionary. As it is not actually from this work, the search continues as to its origins. Dumikyan even contacted the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory in Armenia in case they might have any knowledge of it.

Dumikyan highly commended the preservation efforts of the Armenian Museum, exclaiming that manuscripts are kept very well with climate control and great care. However, she hoped that the museum would be able to have the means one day to renovate or repair manuscripts that have suffered damages or the ravages of time. She pointe dout, “How we maintain museum items shows our attitude towards our cultural heritage.”

She called for increasing cooperation with Armenia and hoped that in the future more researchers will come to work at the museum. Collaboration between Armenia and diaspora would be fruitful, she felt, on many scholarly and cultural topics, including the very timely one of Artsakh’s cultural heritage, especially when efforts are being made to distort Armenian history. Dumikyan in particular stressed that dialogue and vision are important in strengthening the state of current Armenology and helping new generations of scholars advance.

Leg of a cauldron stand, Gift of Karl Sogoian; Bottom: Cheek piece of horse bit, Gift of Paul and Vicki Bedoukian (photo courtesy Armenian Museum of America)

Virtual Activities

Manager of Collections and Museum Operations Zoë Quinn and Executive Director Jason Sohigian listed the four primary types of virtual or online activities of the museum. There are virtual concerts on a bimonthly basis, a monthly virtual exhibition, a live webinar which is also on the museum website concerning the digitized 78 rpm Armenian record collection, and a show-and-tell of various objects conducted by Collections Curator Gary Lind-Sinanian.

The first virtual exhibition was on Artsakh rugs, followed by ones on ancient coins curated by collector Levon Saryan, the Norton Dodge collection of Armenian dissident art, the Azgapetian family and Near East Relief, and the forthcoming exhibition of numismatic and philatelic materials on the first Republic of Armenia. These are often topical, with the Near East Relief exhibit in April coinciding with the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide or the first Republic of Armenia exhibit this month coinciding with the May 28 anniversary of Armenian independence. The Artsakh rug exhibition, Dumikyan’s idea, was inspired by the Artsakh war.

The concerts are curated by composer and conductor  Konstantin Petrossian and supported by a grant from the Dadourian Foundation. Their virtual nature of the concerts allowed musicians from Armenia such as the members of the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble or the Yerevan State Choir to participate.

Quinn said that during this period of Covid restrictions, the museum increased its online presence on Facebook and Instagram, and did more emails, while for the first time it started a YouTube account.

Book cover and Gospel printed in Venice, 19th century, Collection of the Armenian Museum of America (photo courtesy the museum)]

When asked how he chose the wide range of artifacts he presented, Lind-Sinanian responded: “Basically it is a random choice. I don’t want to do too many objects out of one category. I do a little of this and a little of that so that people will get brief introductions to a lot of areas about which that they would not necessarily be aware.”

Sohigian said: The exciting thing about this was that we have so many things in the collection in storage that don’t get to be displayed. Gary brings them out, shows them to people and tells the story behind them. People seem to be enjoying it. We distribute it across all our social media platforms, via email, website, and YouTube.”

The videos were initially an idea by Kolligian, who made a donation at the end of last year to sponsor the series.

Looking towards Physically Reopening, Increasing Membership

Dumikyan is updating the galleries of the museum through her research and new labels are being prepared based on her discoveries. Sohigian said, “There are some new objects and there will be reconfigurations. Alissa is finding out information that we did not have before, which is amazing. Our collection is significant and we are one of the few museums of this caliber in the diaspora.” Beyond that, he confirmed that the first-floor galleries will have a more chronological approach and that there will be an attempt to have more interactive experiences, perhaps with cellphone apps that can provide audio accompaniment while visitors move through the museum.

Sohigian pointed out that many visitors to the museum are not Armenian and are interested in learning more about modern Armenian, culture and customs, according to visitor surveys. Consequently, more current materials will be added to displays gradually as the second and third floors are reconfigured over time. The third floor is reserved for contemporary art and rotating exhibits, and Sohigian said that new artists will be brought in to make the third-floor gallery more vibrant.

One major new project is the updating of the second floor Armenian Genocide exhibit with the aid of an outside scholar. The Cummings Foundation, a non-Armenian company from the Boston area provided the museum a grant a few years ago for this purpose as part of a multi-year project. Sohigian said, “We are going to expand the range of objects displayed and have a focus on regions and family stories of the survivors. We want to have it end on a more uplifting note, since the Genocide has turned into the diaspora and the story of survival and experience.” The survivor oral histories held by the museum will be integrated into new interactive multimedia displays.

Sohigian said that the museum was working towards a soft reopening this summer, possibly even as early as next month. With many visitors and museum members not being local, he continued, the virtual programs will also be retained to at least some extent in order to allow people around the world to enjoy the collections and feel part of the museum. This is something new and positive, evidently, that came out of the Covid restrictions.

In the meanwhile, Sohigian, who only came to work at the museum last November, is trying to expand the museum’s membership through its various online programs. While many people have visited and donated in the past, they did not necessarily become members. He declared, “When we came up against the situation in Artsakh last year, we realized a lot of our heritage and history is endangered, especially with the kind of cultural erasure we are seeing there. We thought this makes our mission even more important now.” Consequently, he is instituting a membership drive this summer to help support the care and maintenance of the museum’s collections.

The museum appears to be in a strong position to do so, as it has been getting a lot of attention in the media. Sohigian said, “I have been here six months as director, and have already had several interviews with non-Armenian media. I was working in the environmental area before and thought that was a popular cause in this country, but now I realize the support for the arts is even greater.” A major grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council led to a connection with WBZ radio in Boston, which advertised the museum for free. In turn, this led to an interview on the Nairyan Ensemble, which is unique for using sign language to accompany their programs.

Even the statement on the Armenian Genocide by President Joe Biden last month led to media inquiries, this time from various countries abroad. Many organizations approached the museum for collaboration in April this year on exhibits or programs, and Sohigian said the museum was able to contribute photos of its objects to help raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide and history.

He concluded, “Even though we might be physically closed, it has been an extremely busy year.” It will be even busier as the museum reopens this summer or fall.

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