A Very Still Life
by Anna Della Subin
All images courtesy the Armenian Library and Museum of America
How excruciating can nothingness be?
— Jack Kevorkian
O death, where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
— Handel’s Messiah III.3.50
The elderly woman behind the reception desk of the Armenian Library and Museum of America stabs her finger onto a copy of Yerevan: Magazine with an Accent and slowly traces a diagonal across the glossy cover. She’s showing me the route of the 500-mile death march her father took in 1915, from his village in Central Anatolia through mountains and deserts to seek refuge outside the city of Mardin. An unblinking Andre Agassi, Yerevan ’s cover model, smiles back next to the headline “CONFESSION: Over 30,000 Turks Apologize to Armenians.” I soon find myself confessing too — that I’m not Armenian — and a puzzled look clouds the old woman’s face. She thrusts a pamphlet at me. It’s titled “We Share Our Pain,” and includes a list of genocides, from the Assyrian and Greek Anatolians to the Jews and Tibetans, Burundians, East Timorese, Kurds, and Rwandans — the list goes on. “Armenians were first,” she informs me. “I don’t know why.”
The Armenian Library and Museum of America, or ALMA, is the biggest repository of Armenian artifacts outside of Armenia, with over 20,000 objects and 27,000 books in a collection that is steadily growing. In its Brutalist building on the corner of Main Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, a little outside of Boston, less than five percent of the collection is ever on display. The aged receptionist is nowhere near the end of her story — her mother, having escaped the Turks, has just arrived at a French convent school in 1920s Beirut — but I thank her and walk into the main gallery, where I am greeted by rare Bibles from the 17th century, elaborate wedding costumes on headless mannequins, and silver gelatin prints by Yousuf Karsh. An ancient flyswatter faces off with a baptismal dove, a warrior’s belt from 700 BC gives way to a spiked human dog-collar from the genocide years. There’s even a “Dental Oriental Rug” featuring a giant molar, woven by Armenian children in Lebanon in 1925 to encourage better oral hygiene in the orphanages. But the paintings I’ve come to see have been locked away in the vault.