A Visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum
Surprising no one, I am of Armenian descent (my name gives me away). My father is Armenian, born in Lebanon. My mother is not Armenian, and was born here in the United States (like me). Why am I bothering to share some of this incredibly personal information with you? Because, earlier this month my dad, my three sisters, and I ventured on a family trip together to Armenia and Lebanon. I'd like to respect my family's privacy as much as possible, but there is one element of the trip that hit home on very personal and professional levels: starting our vacation at the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum (link at bottom of page if you would like to learn more about this event).
Yep. You read that right. I planned a trip to my ancestral homeland and started it with a visit to a museum about genocide! Let me explain why. It is impossible to be of Armenian decent and to grow up without knowledge of the Armenian Genocide, the impact it has had on the nation's people, and the impact it had on one's family. As such, it was going to be impossible for us to ignore the genocide while there. Starting our vacation at the museum was intended to give us a chance to confront the genocide head-on so that the rest of our trip could be a fun exploration of our cultural heritage and Armenia's resiliency. (Tangent: Though a quiet people, Armenians have faced a lot of strife in their 8000+ years. It's almost comical. Don't believe we're that old? This archaeological dig (which we visited) proves we've been around since 6500 BC making wine and wearing shoes. You're welcome). That being said, an event that happened a century ago can still feel abstract. Until it doesn't, which is what happened during our trip. As we began walking through the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum we were greeted with an artifact that bore our family name: an accounting ledger for a shopkeeper named Kouyoumdjian. The name Kouyoumdjian translates to "son of a goldsmith." It is not a common last name (for those wondering - my own surname spelling is a simplification).
"As we began walking through the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum we were greeted with an artifact that bore our family name: an accounting ledger for a shopkeeper named Kouyoumdjian."
There's a lot to unpack here, but it's better done with some context-setting. The museum is a beautiful building, nestled into a hill. At its highest points you have views of Armenia's capital city of Yerevan and nearby Mt. Ararat. Visitors follow a prescribed path, descending into the hill, following a timeline of just over 100 years of history, ending with an ascent to modern day and featured exhibits. The exhibits document daily life before the genocide, the events of the genocide, and the personal and political aftermath of the events. This timeline of events is very familiar to me, but they became a different truth as I navigated the museum, now with a physical reminder that a Kouyoumdjian was part of this public narrative. The object pictured above is one of the first artifacts in the museum, showcasing life in a typical Armenian community. It was impossible to interact with the exhibits that followed without having that image in the back of my mind. Many times I had to step aside and channel my professional "museum self" to stomach the experience. That was a luxury.
"It was impossible to interact with the exhibits that followed without having that image in the back of my mind."
This is not the place to recount the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, but it is a place where I hope to honestly and safely explore what it meant to have to confront them in a visceral, new way. This experience happened somewhere that is quite central to my personal and professional sense of self: a museum. Most of my personal and professional life overlap, but "being Armenian" was always distinctly part of who I was when I was "off duty." Honestly, it is a very private part of me, shared mostly with family and a few friends. Despite weeks of reflecting, I am still struggling to describe what it felt like to see an object bearing my name in a museum about genocide. At first I was delighted and proud - I was represented in a museum (sort of)! Then, situational awareness kicked in, which led to feelings of fear and anticipation, heightened because now I was "part of" this story. At the museum's lowest physical and thematic point I was filled with a harrowing sense of hopelessness. However, that's also when the physical climb up and out of the museum began. By the end of the visit, still heavy with emotion, I found myself circling back to a sense of pride. Yes, I became part of this story in a way that I wasn't expecting, but I came out of it more informed, with new appreciation, and with my family by my side- just like my ancestors did. Damn, that museum is good.
Now I'm home and thinking about what to do with this experience. Sharing here is one facet of that. I'm still figuring out others. Has it spurred me towards greater advocacy efforts? I don't know. I'm already fairly vocal about this historic event, though in a very casual way (e.g., rattling off facts every April on Facebook). This personal story isn't for everyone, but it will always be a part of me and how I communicate the events of 1915 moving forward.
A final plot twist: I don't know if I can claim that the shopkeeper referenced is even a direct relative. None of my family have lived in modern-day Armenia for nearly 200 years. This person could be a cousin, or not a relation at all. Yet, we shared a name and a common ancestral homeland. That was enough to set the tone for not only my visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, but for my first visit to Armenia. I don't think I would have wanted it any other way (nice planning, me!).
Have any of you ever found yourself pulled into a story like this one, that you've always known, yet rediscovered in unexpected ways? How do you grapple with it? I'd love to continue talking with anyone who is open to sharing.
This is a great article on the Armenian Genocide if you are interested in learning more. It's an important event in history and is often overlooked. It is considered to be the first genocide in modern history, in which 1.5 million lives were lost.