Monday, December 24, 2007

Museum plans are stymied - Armenian dream now under threat

Sunday, December 23, 2007
Worcester Telegram, MA

WASHINGTON— Since it opened in 1993, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has attracted more than 25 million visitors, the vast majority of them non-Jews. That number has astonished many observers: Many experts thought that such a large museum devoted to so somber and discomforting a subject would have difficulty attracting visitors.

It gave Anoush Matevosian, a member of the Armenian National Institute’s board of governors, an idea. A museum could open up a new front in the struggle to gain wider public recognition and remembrance of the Armenian genocide.

“No one had quite imagined constructing a museum dedicated to this sad subject,” said Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute. “The Holocaust Museum set an example which can be emulated and learned from, and I think the Armenian-American community was very much impressed and inspired by that example.” But building it would prove more difficult than anticipated.

The Armenian National Institute is a lobbying group devoted to preserving the memory of thousands of Armenians massacred in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire, an event Armenians describe as genocide. Turkey, the Ottoman state’s modern heir, vigorously objects to that description of the event.

The institute and other Armenian groups have waged a worldwide campaign to have governments recognize the killings as genocide; dozens of governments have passed resolutions to that effect, including Russia, Argentina, Sweden, and Canada. France passed a law in 2006 that made denial of the genocide a crime.

A measure recognizing the genocide has languished in Congress since the Clinton administration. In October, the nonbinding resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a 27-21 vote, but Turkish protests and pleas from President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice succeeded in quashing the effort.

The need to preserve access to crucial bases and airports in Turkey to supply the U.S. Army in Iraq was a factor cited by many opponents of the resolution, but even before the war in Iraq, the desire of the U.S. government to maintain Turkey as a close ally in the Middle East has stymied Armenian activists.

Enter Gerard Cafesjian. A stout, balding man who wears a black eyepatch, Mr. Cafesjian, 82, is a former executive and part owner of West Publishing, a Minnesota-based legal database firm that was sold to Thomson Corp. in 1996 for $3.4 billion. Mr. Cafesjian retired from West following the sale, but still manages a wide array of business and charitable ventures. He has a stake in a chain of restaurants, is one of the producers behind last year’s “Prairie Home Companion” film, and paid for the restoration of a historic carousel at the Minnesota State Fair, now known as the Cafesjian carousel.

He is better known in Armenia, where he operates a satellite TV station — which has come under criticism for a perceived strong bias toward the government of President Robert Kocharian. In Armenia, ground has been broken on a museum, funded by Mr. Cafesjian and named after him, which will house his extensive collection of Armenian art.

The institute approached Mr. Cafesjian in 1997 for help with the genocide museum and in 2000 his family foundation contributed $3.5 million to help purchase the former national bank building on G Street in downtown Washington, D.C., is just a short stroll from the White House. Mr. Cafesjian also contributed $500,000 to the project in the form of a promissory note.

Mr. Cafesjian helped to purchase additional lots adjacent to the old bank. In 2002, articles appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post detailing the project and its goals, including a $75 million, 115,000-square-foot project to be opened in 2008.

And then, silence. Public silence, anyway. Behind closed doors, there was much to discuss. Mr. Cafesjian had hired an architect, Edgar Papazian, to create a design. The rest of the museum board raised questions about the scale and elaborate design of the proposal. While the board wrangled, the project remained in limbo.

Then last year, Mr. Cafesjian sued to get his money back from the board. Lawsuits have been filed both in Minnesota — where Mr. Cafesjian’s charitable foundation is run — and in Washington. He is seeking $15 million, more than half of the museum’s endowment. Were he to win, some of the land purchased for the museum would have to be given to Mr. Cafesjian to settle the claim.

“We think the reason he wants the property back is that the value of the property has increased significantly since he donated it,” said museum lawyer Arnold Rosenfeld of K&L Gates. “He wants the property back so he can make a big profit.”

Armenian community members in Central Massachusetts expressed disappointment over the project delays.

“It’s too bad that political games are being played,” said Van Aroian of Worcester and a member of Armenian Church of Our Saviour. “That’s a tragedy that hurts the memory of the people, including my mother’s family and my father-in-law’s family.”

He hopes the parties will resolve their differences. While he would love to have a museum dedicated to the Armenian genocide, he said, it would be more meaningful if it paid homage to all the other contemporary and ongoing genocides.

“I would incorporate it with all evil acts of humanity in the past,” he said.

George Aghjayan, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of Central Massachusetts, agreed a museum to educate people about the Armenian genocide in particular, as well as genocides in general, is an important and worthwhile goal.

“We’re saddened that there are issues that are preventing the museum from moving forward,” he said. “We think a genocide museum in the capital would be fitting.”

Even if he ultimately loses the court case, all the legal wrangling may result in Mr. Cafesjian obtaining his wish. A provision in the original grant returns the property he acquired to him if the museum isn’t built by 2010.

“By stopping them now, they can’t possibly get the museum built by 2010, and he’ll get his property back that way,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.

The museum board has taken action, hiring its own architectural firm, Martinez & Johnson, and exhibit designers, Gallagher & Associates, to get to work on the plans.

The new plans call for a 50,000-square-foot facility, with the bank as its centerpiece but including a modern addition, in part to accommodate disabled visitors. The museum planners are aiming to attract not only Armenian Americans, but the broader public as well.

“In the case of the Armenian genocide, the United States played a very constructive and positive role from the very beginning, and the fact of the matter is we know the story of the Armenian genocide primarily because of the way American witnesses documented and recorded the events,” Mr. Adalian said.

But as long as the case remains in court, even the extent of the facilities cannot be fully mapped out, which is a threat to the broader public role supporters envision the museum serving.

“There have been other people who have been subjected to genocide,” Mr. Adalian said. “And the problem keeps repeating itself into our own times.”

Colleen Sullivan reports for the Washington, D.C., bureau of Boston University News Service. Lisa D. Welsh of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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