Behind the Curtain at the Armenian Genocide Museum
Passersby at 14th and G Street downtown often stop to stare at the large, graceful National Bank building, which has sat as a vacant hole in the cityscape for decades. As they continue down G Street eastward, the confusion only deepens, at abandoned-looking buildings hung with signage for the long-shuttered Clement's Pastry Shop, Grafix Tattoo, and Hollywood Nails.
The fourth building in, 1334 G Street, is entirely blank. But this one, at least, is very much in use: It’s the nerve center for the creation of a monument to the Armenian genocide, slated to occupy the bank building on the corner.
The project hasn't been moving quickly. The news broke a few weeks ago that the organization was behind on its property taxes–which have since been paid–and a nasty lawsuit from a disgruntled former donor has prolonged the already lengthy process of designing a museum in an historic building. There is still no projected opening date; Van Krikorian, an executive with Global Gold Corp and chairman of the museum’s steering committee, just hopes to get another court date by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Rouben Adalian, the maestro of the museum effort, is anxious for D.C. denizens to know that things are still happening.
“If we were an art collection, and it were just about finding space in a building, it would have been done in a year,” he told Housing Complex one recent morning. “We’ve made a lot of headway, I just wish there was some way to show it!”
In creating an approximately 50,000-square-foot genocide memorial, there is one very successful model: The Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993 and is one of the most heavily-trafficked in D.C. But this task may be a bit more challenging, considering that there is so much less visual evidence—little remains from the killing of 1.5 million people back in 1917. Adalian’s main charge is putting together the items that will fill up the bank and adjoining glassy new building that he calls the “tower of light.”
Thinking about genocide all day sure makes for a sober mien. Adalian, a U.S.-born historian, has spent his career interviewing survivors and putting together a 476-page index for documentation of the horrific history. He rarely smiles and speaks softly, sometimes inaudibly, his soft brown eyes often downcast.
“People want to live. They don’t want to die,” Adalian says at one point, slipping into teaching mode. “That’s why a government that wants to destroy a population, you ultimately have to kill them all.”
Day to day, Adalian directs a flock of young people compiling documents and archiving materials. Another floor is rapidly filling with audio tapes, books, and artifacts collected from the furthest reaches of the Armenian diaspora. The museum will eventually contain items from the Near East Foundation, as well as the personal library of an Armenian hero, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau.
While the collection is still coming together, the exhibits themselves, designed by Gallagher Associates, are nearly finished. Visitors will enter through the new annex, which focuses on the Americans and Europeans who aided the Armenians—a large component of the museum’s raison d’etre in D.C.
“The people of this country came to the rescue,” says Adalian, noting that entrance will be free. “At the end of the day, it’s a gift of the Armenian community to the American people in gratitude for their assistance.”
The main interior hall of the bank has a lot to cover: The museum seeks to tell the whole 3,000-year history of the Armenian people, including its status as the world’s first Christian nation, its music and architecture, and the rumblings of genocide decades before the events of 1917 and onwards. The designs make heavy use of large, wall-covering photographs, interactive displays, and audio. They have to fit around the current furniture of the bank itself, which had to be preserved—steel vaults, counters, lamps and all.
Visitors will make their way upwards through the chronology, ending on the top level—a windowless floor fit for the gravity of its subject matter, the genocide itself. Many of the walls have been designed as fractured surfaces, with disorienting planes and vertices.
“You can’t use a smooth wall surface to show how a civilization was destroyed,” Adalian explained. “You can’t put it back together, there’s all these broken pieces.”
The museum, though, ends on a more uplifting note: A “Taking Action Center” that will cover genocides all over the world, encouraging prevention and intervention at the earliest stages.
If the experience becomes too intense, visitors can retire to a memorial garden outside. Don’t think about taking your lunch there with a friend though—it’s for serious reflection only.