This wasn't so good.
The museum is on the ground of the Memorial, but underground -- set into the side of the hill, so you have to go down a stone staircase to reach it. Here again there's the tomb reference, and it's rather well done.
But it's, um, downhill from there. Longish rant after the cut, so here's the short version: this is not really a place where you go to learn about the Armenian Genocide.
Why not? What's wrong with it?
1. It's dinky. The Museum is small, just a large atrium and then four or five rooms. Maybe this was the necessary price for putting it underground? If so, the price was too high. The Genocide is much too huge a topic to fit in this small space.
The smallness is made worse by the need to translate everything into four languages (English, Russian, French and of course Armenian). I can understand the necessity, but it means four times as many labels and explanations and even less space.
2. Annoying paintings. A lot of space is taken up by paintings. All the paintings are by one guy -- Jean Jansem, a French-Armenian artist. They're kind of Egon-Schiele-y. They're mostly of women, in various states of post-violence deshabille. Aesthetic judgments are necessarily subjective, but let's just say that the paintings didn't work for me, and took up a lot of space in a museum that was pretty short on space already.
(This is not to say art has no place in a museum. There was one piece I liked: a small sculpture of Father Komitas, the Armenian monk-turned-composer who became Armenia's greatest musicologist. Komitas went insane after 1915, and the sculpture is... just right, I thought. But it didn't take up much space and wasn't forcing one person's aesthetic vision on me.)
3. "The Genocide did so happen, damn it!" Okay, this one is not exactly the museum's fault. Any discussion of the Armenian Genocide tends to get sidetracked by the fact that the fucking Turks are still lying about it: four parts denying it happened, one part insisting that the Armenians deserved it. I find this enraging, and I'm not even Armenian. I can understand how it could drive people a little nuts.
That said, about a third of the exhibit falls into the "YES goddamnit here is the EVIDENCE" category. Again and again there are photocopies of old letters and newspaper documents, blown up and translated (four times). But they're almost all by foreigners -- Americans, Germans, Russians, one Arab. This gets annoying after a while. All these neutral witnesses are well and good, but they crowd out the voices of the victims, both survivors and slain.
The debate belongs there; Turkish denialism is part of the story, unfortunately. But it shouldn't dominate and pervade the way it does.
4. The occasional nugget of pure bullshit. I spotted a couple of flat-out lies. Here's one, from the informational pamphlet at the door:
Why was the Armenian Genocide perpetrated?
When WWI erupted, the Young Turk government, hoping to save the remains of the weakened Ottoman Empire, adopted a policy of Pan Turkism -- the establishment of a mega Turkish empire comprising of all Turkic-speaking peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia extending to China, intending also to Turkify all ethnic minorities of the empire. The Armenian population became the main obstacle standing in the way of this policy.
If I encountered this statement on Usenet, I'd mock it relentlessly. (Or, these days, more likely ignore it. I don't have as much time for Usenet as I used to.) It's just not true. Pan-Turkism had very little to do with the Armenian genocide; there were at least three other things that were far more important, from the economic position of urban Armenians to the fact that they were a minor but real security threat to the Ottoman Empire.
N.B., that last one goes to another bit of bullshit: the Armenians are always helpless and blameless victims (except for the heroic defense of Musa Dagh, of course). There's no mention of the Dashnaks blowing up banks or killing Ottoman officials, nor of Armenians fighting beside the advancing armies of the Czar. Nor discussion of how some Armenian communities had managed to defend themselves against the earlier Hamidian massacres, nor of why those tactics mostly didn't work in 1915.
And there's a lot of flattening and simplifying -- sometimes distortion, sometimes to the point of outright lies. For instance, there's a before-and-after photograph of Van (a town in Turkey, formerly a major center of Armenian culture). The before picture shows a thriving small city, the after a bombed-out ruin with just a few chimneys still standing. The caption is, "Van before and after the pogrom". Well, there was a pogrom at Van, but that's not what destroyed it. The Turks started with the usual round of murders, picking off community leaders and then trying to "conscript" men for massacres. But in Van the Armenians realized what was coming and took up arms and defended themselves. They held off the Turks for weeks until the Russian Army relieved them. But then, a couple of months later, the Russians were forced back. So most of the Armenians evacuated. And the pissed-off Turks burned the city to the ground.
That's a more complicated story, but surely it's not that hard to grasp. And it reflects well on the Armenians who tried to defend their town. But it doesn't fit in the museum, either because it doesn't fit the story they're trying to tell or because, with the small size and the paintings and all, there's just not room. So what you get is: here was the city, pogrom!, totally destroyed.
(Totally random note: while checking the Van history, I found there's a memorial to the Van resistance. I've seen that memorial -- it's just off the road to Mount Aragats -- but I had no idea what it was. When I drove past, I pulled off the road for a closer look, but I couldn't make any sense of it. Built during Soviet times, it has no sign or marker in English or even Russian, and it's just an abstract tower sort of a thing. Now I know. That pleases me.)
Anyway. I guess my problem with the Museum is that it's not really a museum at all. It's a special kind of memorial: one meant to make us sad and piss us off. But it's not really interested in teaching us.
What nudged me from mild irritation to being really annoyed was that there were still bits and pieces of fascinating history. For instance, thousands of Armenian orphans managed to survive one way or another; a surprising number were adopted by Arab families in Lebanon or Syria, and a few were even adopted by Turks. That history could fill a museum by itself, but it gets one small display. Or the history of the Dashnaks, the Armenian revolutionary party who tried to organize resistance and then helped refugees get out. They're mentioned just once or twice. (They're still politically active, so I guess the Museum is treading carefully.) The Van Resistance is a great story (and produced a couple of the subsequent leaders of the short-lived Armenian Republic) but it's barely mentioned. And so on.
I have a lot of questions about the history; it's a fascinating, if horrible, topic, and I'd really like to know more. What made the expulsions more lethal in some areas than in others? What made survival more likely? What was the nature of the "Special Organization" -- similar to the later Nazi Einsatzgruppe -- set up to handle the deportations and killings; how was it organized, and how did it function? How did the Ottoman authorities handle disinformation and public awareness of the killings? Why were the Kurds ferociously anti-Armenian while the Arabs more likely to be neutral or even friendly? How did other Ottoman minority communities -- Jews, Greeks -- respond to the massacres? Why are there so few survivors' memoirs? (Or are there, but just not in English?) How many people were saved by relief efforts? How did the short-lived Armenian Republic, and then the Soviets, deal with the first waves of refugees? How was the history of what happened pieced together?
But the Museum is not there to answer these sorts of questions.
Anyway. There are some things to like about the Museum. I mentioned the tomb-like aspect. There are, again, the lost districts and villages; in the first room, each one has its own small display, which is a nice touch. Then at the end, there are small plastic cases on stands, each containing a clod of dirt from one of the lost districts. I thought that worked.
But overall a disappointment. I didn't mind the gruesome photographs or the sad relics of lost families and villages. That's history: full of ugliness and pain. But I want to have context: what happened, how, and why. If I'm going to have my heart torn, I'd like to have my head fed too.