From 1915 through 1918, more than a million Armenians living under Ottoman rule were massacred. Many who survived the genocide fled their homeland, some secretly harboring sacred objects as they passed through border stations on their journey to the United States.
At first, the objects were honored quietly in bedroom shrines. But eventually many were donated to a group of Armenians in the Boston area who wanted to protect them for future generations.
Founders of the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown began preserving items at the The First Armenian Church of Belmont in 1972, a year after the group’s formation. In 1986 they renovated the church’s basement, which served as the museum until 1990, when it moved to its current quarters at 65 Main St., Watertown.
As if by reflex, some of the objects were boxed again. That is, until this past January, when Jennifer Liston Munson joined the museum as its new executive director.
“Now,” she said, “we are able to emerge from that initial impulse of protect and preserve, to present and share.”
The museum’s long-stored “objects of witness and survival” will be spotlighted in a new first-floor gallery opening on Nov. 15. At a free opening reception, guests can enjoy food and refreshments, speeches by museum leadership, and live music by Armenian cellist Kate Kayaian.
The museum’s collection is a vast repository, with 5,000 ancient and medieval Armenian coins, more than 3,000 textiles, religious artifacts, ceramics, medieval illuminations, and library. The 1969 brutalist-style building was designed by Ben Thompson, a member of the Architects Collaborative and founder of Design Research.
Now the building is undergoing a “reinvention process,” Munson said, with the aid of Virginia Durruty, an architect who most recently redesigned galleries in the Louis Kahn building at Yale University.
“As we speak, the carpeting covering the concrete floors is being lifted up and will be polished,” Munson said in an interview earlier this fall. A metaphor, she added, “for the difficulty of the Armenian history.”
One of the donated objects that will be highlighted in the new gallery is a medieval reliquary arm — a hollow metal-and-brass arm designed to house the bones of a saint. It was bequeathed to the museum by a woman named Aghavni Demirjian.
In 1916, Demirjian’s mother was escorting a friend to a Russian border crossing when she encountered two women who feared they would be searched and their reliquary arm confiscated. They gave the sacred metal arm to Demirjian’s mother, who brought it with her to the United States and kept it in a shrine in her Rhode Island bedroom.
When she died, her daughter donated the reliquary arm to the museum.
“Of course, this is very relevant right now,” Munson said. “We have so many refugees, we have so many people fleeing their homeland.”
Earlier this year, Roxane Russo donated her grandmother’s “orphan dress,” a white cotton dress that Araxie Krikorian embroidered with blue thread at an orphanage in Greece, where she was taken during the genocide. She eventually moved to Rhode Island and brought the dress with her.
The new gallery, “Armenia: art, culture, eternity,” will showcase objects from the country’s genesis in the Asian continent, its Indo-European alphabet, its adoption of Christianity, and its experience with genocide.
“I think people may have heard that word [genocide] but they don’t know what it means, they don’t know the details,” she said.
The first phase of the project used existing funds made possible by donors, patrons, and visitors. Eventually, the museum hopes to renovate the building’s remaining two floors, including its archive and conservation areas, and the building’s exterior.
The museum will host programing, educational tours, live music events, and more in its newly renovated spaces.
“It’s really going to be an absolutely beautiful gallery; it’s really going to rival any gallery in Boston,” Munson said.
On Nov. 15 , the Armenian Museum of America will hold a free opening reception in the new first-floor gallery with speakers and live music from 6 to 7:30 p.m. A special reception in the Adele and Haig Der Manuelian Galleries will take place on the third floor from 7:30 to 9 p.m. To register, e-mail email@example.com or call 617-929-2562, ext. 4.
The museum will resume regular hours and admission prices on Nov. 16 . The museum is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Regular admission for adults is $15; students and seniors pay $5; children and museum members are admitted free of cost.