By Gohar Galyan
LOS ANGELES–On Tuesday afternoon–over thirty youth from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Shant Student Association and Armenian Youth Federation (AYF)–as well as representatives from the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA)–and Armenian Relief Society–visited the Museum of Tolerance to confirm whether the museum fulfilled its promise to unveil–by June 30–an exhibit that included the Armenian Genocide. To the visitors’ disappointment–the new exhibit did not mention the Armenian Genocide.
"I felt cheated and lied to and felt very disappointed that a museum would lie to not only me but also to the kids–to the Armenian community and to all Californians," said ANCA Western Region Government Relations Director Ardashes Kassakhian–one of the visitors.
The promise was made at an April 21 meeting during which members of AYF were on the sixth–and what was to be the final day of a hunger strike in front of the Museum protesting its failure to properly address the Armenian Genocide and its refusal to speak with the AYF and ANC about the issue. The protest drew local and national media attention.
Kassakhian–AYF Central Executive member Vicken Sosikian and two of the hunger strikers met with the director of the Museum Liebe Geft–the director of public relations Eva Shapiro–and an assistant. During the meeting–Armenian community representatives "were given an assurance that by June 30–there would be an exhibit that referenced and included the Armenian Genocide," said Kassakhian. After that meeting–Armenian community representatives were escorted to the ground floor of the Museum where Geft pointed out the wall where the promised exhibit would be mounted.
"At that point–we did not think that the Museum would be so insincere as to lie," said Kassakhian. In mid June–Sosikian spoke with Geft who assured him that the exhibit would open by June 30. "She said that it was still in progress–that they were putting the final touches on it–and it would be ready at the end of June," said Sossikian.
It was this promise that led the various representatives of the Armenian community to meet in front of the Museum at noon on Tuesday; once gathered–everyone entered the Museum. "The ANC and the AYF organized today’s visit. We basically went there to view the exhibit we were told was going to be done by today," said Sosikian.
Sosikian said that he was hopeful entering the Museum. "When a director of a Museum of that magnitude makes a statement–I believe it," he said.
The Armenian group immediately visited the wall on which the exhibit was promised. Though a new exhibit was in place–it omitted the Armenian Genocide. When Kassakhian asked a Museum representative (who did not want to be identified) why the exhibit excluded any mention of the Armenian Genocide–the representative replied that the Museum was still researching "the numbers."
Kassakhian asked what "the numbers" referred to–but received no answer from the representative–who said she was not involved in the project and directed the group to speak with Geft. When Sosikian asked to meet with Geft and Shapiro–he was told–by the same representative–that they were both unavailable.
"What is even more upsetting is that the representatives of so many well-respected and active organizations in the community went there to see the so- called exhibit–but they did not even bother to exhibit their public relations director to make a statement," said Sosikian.
The Museum representative also said that the Museum was working on another exhibit that would mention the Armenian Genocide–but that she did not know when that exhibit would open. In February–however–Geft told the Los Angeles Times that a permanent exhibit that mentioned the Armenian Genocide would open "very soon."
On June 20–after Sosikian spoke with Geft–the AYF and ANCA issued a joint press release about the unveiling of the new exhibit at the Museum by July 1–and encouraged Armenian Americans to visit the Museum to view it.
On Wednesday–however–Shapiro said that the "information in the press release was erroneous." When pressed about the sincerity of the promise Geft made at the April 21 meeting–Shapiro repeated that the information was erroneous and that the Museum had no further comment. Calls from Asbarez to Geft and Rabbi Abraham Cooper were not returned.
The unidentified representative mentioned that when the Museum initially opened–it included an exhibit on the Armenian Genocide–but the Museum–reserving the right to move around and remove exhibits in order to keep the exhibits relevant–removed that exhibit. She said–however–that the Museum library included over seventy books and films on the Armenian Genocide.
She stressed that the Museum makes available a film that mentions the Armenian Genocide to those Museum goers who request it. On Monday–an ANCA member visited the Museum; the tour guide did not tell him about the availability of the film.
On Tuesday–the visitors were escorted to the theater only after one of the visitors asked the Museum whether it had anything on the Armenian Genocide. Thus–it appears–in order to view the film–the visitor must know about its availability–and request to view it.
But many of those who viewed the six minute film on Tuesday were bitterly disappointed.
"The length of the film is really disappointing. They have one minute on the Armenia’s," said Hrag Saatjian–one of the four AYF hunger strikers who visited the Museum on Tuesday. "You can’t just talk about the extermination of 1.5 million people in vague terms and make it an option. That is not showing the proper respect that they deserve."
"Although the Museum claims that the film is ‘powerful,’ I found it to be simplistic–incongruous–and empty of any substance that explains what leads to genocide–and how to stop it," revealed Kassakhian. "What makes it worse is that not everyone who visits the Museum on a given day even sees this film."
Furthermore–the film claims that 500,000 to 1,000,000 Armenia’s died during the Genocide. In reality–1.5 million Armenia’s were massacred.
Protesting the Museum’s failure to fulfill its promise–the Armenian representatives walked out of the Museum on Tuesday and demanded a refund for their tickets. The Museum complied.
The Museum’s actions led many to believe that the Museum was disingenuous when it made the promise in April. "I don’t think they were sincere. If they were–they would have called us and told us that the exhibit was going to be delayed. I think this was a blatant lie and it makes one question the motives for the omission of the Armenian Genocide," said Kassakhian.
Despite the disappointment–Saatjian does not think his efforts in the hunger strike were in vain. He views the hunger strike as a progressive step towards getting the Museum to host a permanent exhibit on the genocide. "It got the Museum’s attention and the Armenian community’s attention," he said. "It was one step towards our goal."
Sosikian said that ANCA and AYF leaders are now going to sit down to formulate a game plan for dealing with the Museum.
Saatijian remained hopeful about the placement of a permanent exhibit. "We are going to continue our efforts to see to it that there is an exhibit," he said.