Here's An Early Look At LA’s Future Armenian American Museum
On a stretch of Colorado Street in Glendale, a short distance from the Americana at Brand shopping center, construction crews are hard at work on a building’s foundation and an underground parking lot.
All a visitor can see are concrete pillars and rebar rising from the ground. But standing on a patch of gravel facing the construction site, Shant Sahakian points to an imaginary doorway of the future Armenian American Museum.
“We're looking at the north entrance to the building,” said Sahakian, the museum’s executive director. “And so from here is where you would walk in and you'd be greeted by the grand lobby.”
Armenian community leaders began making plans for the museum back in 2014, around the same time they were planning the massive April 2015 march in Los Angeles that commemorated the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
“That was meant for, ‘How do we honor and remember the last hundred years?’ And the second project was, ‘How do we build for the next hundred?’” Sahakian said.
After weighing various ideas — like monuments, a church, a school — the idea of a museum and cultural center won out, said Sahakian, who also sits on the Glendale school board.
A broad coalition that includes educators, researchers, business and faith leaders, and an international museum design firm have worked on the project. A fundraising campaign has so far netted $31 million in public and private donations, Sahakian said, including grants from the state and county and a dollar-a-year lease on the land from Glendale.
Sahakian said the current construction budget — which does not include the exhibits — is $35 million.
Marking Thousands Of Years Of History
The next step is drawing up the museum’s permanent exhibit, which is in the planning stages. Sahakian and other organizers say that while the museum got its start in the commemoration of the genocide, it will be about much more.
“Armenian history goes back thousands of years,” he said. “We have a rich history, traditions, culture that we also want to highlight.”
The plans for the museum, which is expected to open in the summer of 2024, are ambitious: Organizers say it will explore Armenian history along with Armenian American contemporary culture and its contributions.
There will be an indoor auditorium for things like lectures and screenings, along with an adjacent outdoor amphitheater in Glendale’s small Central Park, which is being reconfigured by the city to accommodate the museum. Inside, there will also be a demonstration kitchen, where visitors can learn about and sample Armenian cuisine.
The Armenian Genocide, in which it is believed as many as many as 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives at hands of the Ottoman Empire, will also play a big role.
‘I Am Somebody, But I Am Nobody’
Oral histories, including those of genocide survivors, will be critical to telling the larger story, said Shushan Karapetian, deputy director of USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies.
“Because the genocide isn't just the brutality, but it's what was lost — including language, including culture, including heritage,” said Karapetian, a member of the museum’s permanent exhibition committee.
These accounts will likely include survivor interviews preserved by USC’s Shoah Foundation, which is also involved in the museum project.
One example: a 1985 interview conducted in Australia by the Armenian Film Foundation with a man named Jirair Suchiasian, who was orphaned in the genocide as a young child.
The Armenian story is still being written. And so we see the building as a living breathing building, that's going to evolve as the Armenian story also evolves.
In the interview, Suchiasian, who was adopted, talked about never knowing who his birth parents were, or his real name.
“I don’t know what is my name, where I was born, who (were) my parents,” Suchiasian says in the recording, provided to LAist by the Shoah Foundation. “Now here I am, I am somebody, but I am nobody.”
Stories like Suchiasian’s can bring the weight of the Armenian American legacy to life, said Sedda Antekelian, an education and outreach specialist with the Shoah Foundation and a member of the museum’s permanent exhibition committee. She said other oral histories that may be included can give voice to more contemporary issues, like the dual identity of Armenian Americans.
‘Armenians Have Been Global Before Global Was A Thing’
“For me, what this museum offers is that opportunity for the next generation of Armenian descendants … to discover, ‘What does it mean to be Armenian?’” Antekelian said. “What does that identity look like across time?”
USC’s Karapetian, who studies language, said the migration of Armenians to the U.S. and so many other countries before and after the genocide has made for a rich and evolving story of diaspora that deserves to be explored.
“The Armenian story is a story of not just diaspora, capital D, but diasporas, right? The Armenians have been global before global was a thing,” she said, laughing. “So I think one of my goals is to highlight the kind of plurality and multipolarity of the Armenian experience.”
Karapetian said this might be captured, for example, in an exhibit on the different and evolving versions of Armenian spoken around the world — like what she and others lovingly term “Armglish” as spoken here in Southern California, in the biggest Armenian community in the United States.
“My big goal, however we are going to do this, is to make the language an accessible, tangible, playful thing and to provide people with a sense of ownership, regardless of what your proficiency looks like,” Karapetian said.
Sahakian, the museum’s executive director, said this kind of approach is exactly what the Armenian American museum is about.
“We want it to be a place that honors our past, but we also want it to be a place that builds our future,” Sahakian said. “The Armenian story is still being written. And so we see the building as a living breathing building, that's going to evolve as the Armenian story also evolves.”