Wanders and Wonders in Armenia’s Regional Museums
ARTS & CULTURE

Wanders and Wonders in Armenia’s Regional Museums

Curator Nairi Khatchadourian tells about her experience working with several regional museums far from Yerevan and explains what are the main challenges that need to overcome.

Text : Nairi Khatchadourian

Cover Photo : Nune Hayrapetyan for My Armenia Program, Dilijan Local Lore Museum and Gallery

 

 

As part of the cultural fabric of our society, museums constantly need to open themselves to the idea of change and serve as active change makers. Museums’ relationships to their communities, and to society as a whole, and their ability to link the past with the present, especially in this time of rapid change, will determine what they are in the future.

Parallel to the worldwide trend to make culture more accessible and inclusive to all through multidisciplinary programming, new models of access and use of digital collections and accommodations made for audiences with disabilities (cognitive, sensory, and physical), museums are decentralizing and extending their reach – from cities to regional branches, and to international outposts – to contribute to local community development, economic sustainability, and cultural dissemination.

When mapping Armenia’s museums, one understands that among the 124 public museums operating in the country, more than half are in the regions (55 are in Yerevan and the remaining 69 in the regions, of which 19 are branch museums; the complete)1. Alas, many regional museums have stagnated and are kept as repositories of historic treasures and cultural memory. Repositioning and reactivating collections, reviewing the curatorial narratives and creating different ways for the visitors to connect with histories, people, and objects of the past are some of the many challenges museums are facing in maintaining relevance and creating deeper, long-lasting connections with today’s audiences. Moreover, museums have the urge to adopt short and long-term strategies to increase community engagement and to rethink their traditional business model (at odds with the economic realities of our times), while continuing to collect, preserve, and interpret changing cultural landscapes. There is no doubt that Armenia’s regional museums have the potential to thrive both nationwide and on a more global scale.

Liquor Set, Eranuhi Aslamazyan, 1960s-1970s

Liquor Set, Eranuhi Aslamazyan, 1960s-1970s

photo credit: Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters

 

Ritual Jug, 8th – 6th centuries BCE, Yeghegnadzor Regional Museum

Ritual Jug, 8th – 6th centuries BCE, Yeghegnadzor Regional Museum    

photo credit: Nairi Khatchadourian for My Armenia Program 

 

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Since the end of 2015, a number of Armenia’s regional museums have been included in the “My Armenia” Program (MAP) of cultural heritage tourism funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution, in order to strengthen their capacities and develop best practices, which could drive sustainable growth both in the museums and in their communities2. The program is providing strategic guidance through specialized trainings, one-on-one operational and organizational mentorship programs, and targeted assistance to improve collection stewardship, community engagement, and integration in the tourism value chain.

Among MAP’s beneficiary museums are a number of history museums operating in the regions which display very valuable archaeological and ethnographic collections – mesmerizing both for the local and the international visitor. Moreover, in the regions, the visitor has the opportunity to experience those museums and see the collection objects closer to the context in which they were originally found, created, or used. Some of the pieces standing out from the Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions, for example, are anthropomorphic and animal sculptures as old as the 2nd millennium BC. A five-faced basalt stela on display at the Goris Local Lore Museum (height: 76 cm), discovered in a necropolis in Harjis village about 20 km outside of Goris, is a one-of-a-kind artefact dated to the early Middle Iron Age. As a rather well-preserved archaeological artefact, the idol has five flat faces, a wide neck, blind holes for the eyes, a grooved line for the mouth, and eyebrow ridges going through the nose. According to scholars, the stela’s original placement should have been in the center of a structure, most likely a sanctuary.

Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters

Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters

photo credit: Nune Hayrapetyan for My Armenia Program 

 

A great number of anthropomorphic sculptures representing persons, ancestors or deities, from the same era and in the same local style, can be found in the Kapan Local Lore Museum, a private collection in Goris, and scattered around Harjis village. The sculptures are either heads from statues, larger sculptures with ornaments scrupulously carved on the body, or cylindrical stelae, the latter being a transformation of phallic statues. The Goris Local Lore Museum, with its stunning five-faced idol, could expand its exposure by building strong partnerships with the three above-mentioned sites (museum/private collection/village). Those partnerships could increase the Museum’s social capital by conveying the message that the people who live in Syunik region have an important story to preserve and to share regarding their heritage of a very unique local style of sculpture.

Moreover, the collections of the Goris Local Lore Museum and the Yeghegnadzor Regional Museum hold magnificent samples of Urartian metalworking and pottery making. A bronze lion figurine weighing 6 kg from the 7th century BC, excavated in 1961 in the Kapan region, is a jewel from the Urartian culture that any museum would dream  of displaying in its permanent exhibition. Another unique animal-shaped artefact, dated from the 8th-6th centuries BCE, is the bear-shaped ritual vessel accidentally found in Areni village in the Vayots Dzor region during a construction project in 1981. Hollow on the inside, with holes on the neck and the nose to pour liquid (presumably wine), such animal-shaped clay vessels were used during ritual ceremonies. The museum, a 20-minute ride from Areni and in the heart of the old winery heritage region, could foster community-based activities with the participation of community members and reinvent itself as a contemporary cultural hub. The more museums participate in a dialogue with their communities, the more they will achieve sustainability. 

Five-faced basalt stela, 2nd millennium BCE, Goris Local Lore Museum

Five-faced basalt stela, 2nd millennium BCE, Goris Local Lore Museum

photo credit: Nairi Khatchadourian for My Armenia Program 

 

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Numerous fine arts galleries operate in the regions as well. One of the most active galleries among them is Gyumri’s Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters housed in a former 19th-century home of an affluent merchant family. The two-storey gallery is preserving and displaying both of the sisters’ large collection of paintings and graphic works. These talented world traveler artists left a striking imprint on Armenian art of the 20th century and bolstered the role of female artist in the patriarchal Soviet-Armenian society. Both sisters also created stunning modern glazed ceramic pieces, which played an important role in the development of ceramic art in the Soviet Union.

Finally, Armenia’s regions are home to the birthplaces of many great Armenian writers, whose houses have turned into memorial house museums. MAP collaborates closely with the Aksel Bakunts House Museum and the Hovhannes Toumanian House Museum, in Goris and Dsegh respectively. Aksel Bakunts is widely known for his collection of short stories with hauntingly beautiful imagery. He has also authored a number of film scripts produced by Hyefilm in the 1930s. Fond of wild flowers and in awe of the majestic mountains of the region of Zangezur, Aksel Bakunts worked as an agronomist and also practiced photography – a medium in practice in the city of Goris at that time. Unfortunately, accused of alienation by the socialist society, he was arrested and executed as a victim of the Stalinist terror at the young age of 38. These biographical elements could become the point of departure for a new interdisciplinary narrative, one that would engage history, literature, botanic studies, photography and film studies.

Aksel Bakunts House-Museum, Syunik

Aksel Bakunts House-Museum, Syunik  

photo credit: Lauren Appelbaum for My Armenia Program

 

Last but not least, it’s needless to outline the richness of Toumanian’s multifaceted heritage and the potential role his House Museum should have both in the Lori region and in Armenia. To this day, the museum centers on the author’s daily life in Dsegh, rather than being collection-centered. By unlocking the potential of Toumanian’s literary work – from his fairy tales to his novels and poems – the museum could become a performing arts platform celebrating language and imagination and imparting a new appreciation of Toumanian’s creative output. The entire complex would be surrounded by enchanted gardens capturing the spirit of both Toumanian and Dsegh of course. Perhaps, Toumanian’s House Museum could be reimagined in a similar spirit to the Hans Christian Andersen Fairy-tale House Museum in the Danish city of Odense – part of a Denmark-wide initiative to expand the country’s cultural heritage tourism offer?

    

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Just as historic and ethnographic collections need renewed narratives, artists’ house museums and galleries have the chance to become new laboratories engaged with different publics to constantly build a new collection out of the old collection. Museums have to create and maintain a dialogue with the contemporary world and give a contemporary presence to the stories and objects of the past. To liberate themselves from rigid institutional paradigms and from a linear presentation of history, the museums should create organic relationships with artists, curators, scholars, writers, architects, designers, musicians, and more. In this manner, fieldwork and production will take place inside the museum. Hence, the museum will reinvent itself as an open laboratory, a place for critical thought and education, scholarly studies, and contemporary artistic practice, in other words, a public site fostering cross-fertilization.

Both as wanderspaces and wonderspaces, Armenia’s regional museums offer a rich collection of historical testimonies and tangible heritage. Along the line of “displaying the depths of our humanity” stated by Orhan Pamuk in his museum “manifesto”, the future of tradition lies on the possibility to trigger creative reactions, bring forth soulful emotions and thoughts, and humanize the museum encounter.

 

 

1 A complete list of Armenia’s museums can be found in the guidebook “The Museums of Armenia and Artsakh” published in 2016 by ICOM Armenia and the Ministry of Culture (eds: M. Mkrtchyan, V. Zakaryan, A. Avagyan). Yet some new museums have opened since 2016.

2 To learn more about My Armenia and the beneficiary regional museums, please see the program’s website: https://myarmenia.si.edu/en/