Armenian Museum of America opening new gallery in November

Armenian Museum of America opening new gallery in November

PanARMENIAN.Net - The Armenian Museum of America in Watertown is updating its space under the leadership of new Executive Director Jennifer Liston Munson. The museum will open its new gallery to public in November, Wicked Local Watertown reports.

Munson has an extensive art background and worked as a senior member of the Exhibitions and Designs department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Before becoming executive director, she had collaborated on many projects and exhibitions with the Armenian Museum.

Munson said trustees hired her to guide the museum’s artistic direction forward. The board did not define exactly what that might look like, and instead let Munson take the helm. She mulled this over for a couple of months and came up with a plan.

Munson wants the museum to be a place of discovery. A place where Armenian-Americans can connect to their heritage, and also a place where people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds can learn how integrated the Armenian experience is with American culture and identity.

“We are creating a space to welcome people, to educate, and to enlighten,” she said.

Munson separated this overarching mission into different phases.

Right now, the museum is in the first phase involving renovating the galleries. The Armenian Museum is located in the historic Coolidge Bank and Trust Building at 65 Main St. in Watertown. Architect Ben Thompson, who also designed Faneuil Hall, conceived the original layout of this building.

The structure’s edifice is brick, while the interior is concrete. It is designed in the fashion of brutalist architecture, which according to Munson creates a perfect metaphor for the Armenian people. She said the architecture is meant to be strong, durable, and create a safe place. The Armenian people have endured genocide, diaspora, and the structure’s design is an ode to that struggle.

In recognition of this, Munson has preserved much of the building’s original design.

“We are respecting Ben Thompson’s original intent,” she said. “and asking what are the moves we need to make to shift this space from a bank to a museum.”

Munson is taking a deconstructive approach to the building renovations. She is creating a more open space by breaking down walls and taking a part some of the physical barriers inside the structure. Munson is also repurposing a lot of the old bank furniture to use in the museum offices. The building retains its’ concrete interior and other key elements of brutalistic nature, but now has a modern twist. She hopes this new design will help attract young, professionals to the museum.

In addition to building renovations, Munson is also introducing new exhibition concepts. She wants to create a space that is dynamic rather than stagnant. To do this, she is organizing cultural events. Some might feature Armenian music, of Armenian cooking, but the idea is to bring art alive.

Munson is also creating an introduction gallery. The gallery will be at the front of the museum entrance and will highlight different Armenian artifacts every month. The artifacts will be accompanied by descriptions narrating their different histories, and how each came to the museum.

According to Munson, many of the museum’s artifacts are interesting not just because of their historical significance, but because of their journeys as objects of witness and survival.

“Every object can tell a huge story,” she said.

One of the pieces is a reliquary arm. Reliquaries are containers for preserving and venerating the physical remains of holy persons. A woman fleeing the Armenian genocide was in possession of this particular reliquary. When she arrived at Russia’s border, she saw Russian soldiers confiscating Armenian refugees’ valuables. The woman gave the arm to a stranger she met at the border station to save it from Russian soldiers.

The family the women gave the arm to ended up immigrating to Rhode Island. They took great care of the arm, and eventually an ancestor bequeathed it to the museum. These are the stories that Munson wants to highlight to connect all of the museums’ visitors to the collections.

In addition to these moving exhibitions, the museum has permanent collections that highlight Armenia’s ancient history and the genocide. Munson is also working to integrate more about the Armenia diaspora which is not a well-known tale.

“It is something we are trying to do as an non-profit cultural institution, to tell a story that has not been told.”

She is sensitive of the fact that she comes from the outside. Munson is a non-Armenian trying to tell the Armenian story. However, she believes that sometimes it takes somebody from the outside to help tell the story in a way that will connect with everyone. Her museum background and expertise, she believes will allow her to do this successfully.

There is still a long way go. Once the museum completes Phase I, they will move on to Phase II which addresses the museum as a whole. The plan will take a couple of years to complete, but Munson is grateful for the support she has received from the Board of Trustees.

“I am sensitive to the complexity of change in such a delicate history, but this Board of Trustees has really placed such confidence in me and gives me such support,” said Munson.

In the meantime, Museum staff are keeping busy. They are preparing for a trip to the MET in New York on October 19. The museum has lent the MET a couple of artifacts for their exhibition, Armenia!

Munson is also preparing for their big opening in the fall. The museum will open their new gallery doors to the public Nov. 15.

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