Critics’ Forum: Matenadaran’s Restoration Department: Preserving Life and Culture
BY RAMELA GRIGORIAN ABBAMONTIAN
I spent part of this summer in Armenia – mesmerized by the free flight of “tsitsernakner,” birds purported to return to their original homes (much like I believe I was doing with a visit to my homeland); constantly yearning for a clear sky to reveal the majestic peaks of Mt. Ararat; visiting medieval churches and fortresses proudly standing as emblems of our rich cultural heritage; and soaking up daily conversations with the locals as they responded to my prompt, “Tell me about how life has changed after the revolution.”
Only a few days into my trip, I visited the Mesrob Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, better known as the Matenadaran, with my family and had a private tour of the Restoration Department. Deeply moved (to the point of tears) on so many levels, the experience set the tone for the rest of my stay in Armenia. It ignited feelings of gratitude and pride, and triggered a renewed sense of commitment and responsibility to my homeland in my role as a diasporan, especially in light of the velvet revolution that has noticeably sparked a “nor shounch” in Armenia.
Though most Armenians might be familiar with the Matenadaran, it is beneficial to take a few moments to set the stage with some background information. The initial image one might conjure up might be the sculpture right outside the entrance: the commanding figure of medieval linguist and father of the Armenian alphabet Mesrob Mashtots sitting authoritatively and teaching a young and eager pupil. Beyond the doors, with 23,000 documents, it is the richest repository of Armenian manuscripts and printed materials in the world with an extensive collection of non-Armenian documents as well; the diverse subjects include theology, philosophy, history, geography, law, medicine, mathematics, literature, miniature painting, music, and theater. It is noteworthy that there are also many Armenian translations of documents whose originals in their mother languages no longer exist. While the Matenadaran is comprised of a museum, library, and research institute, it is the Restoration Department that is the focus of this brief discussion. I had the opportunity to interview Gayane Eliazyan, the Director of the Restoration Department, as well as one of the restorers, Lilit Bachachyan, to gain some insight into their work.
When the collection moved from Echmiadzin to its present building in 1959, the Restoration Department was created, thereby demonstrating early on a recognition by the authorities of the significance of preserving these valuable historical artifacts. Through the years, the department has acquired better tools and materials, and has been able to incorporate advanced techniques of restoration and preservation. It is both impressive and inspiring that the department has partnered with other institutions on a global scale for an exchange of ideas, methodologies, and training. When means are not available at the Restoration Department, samples are sent abroad for professional testing. In other instances, the Matenadaran’s restorers are the ones who visit other countries to train their counterparts in advanced restoration methods. This meaningful collaboration attests to their commitment not just to the documents in their care, but to the cultural legacy of the world on a large scale. It is this type of collaboration that will secure the longevity of worldwide cultural legacy.
Most of the manuscripts that have reached the Matenadaran’s restorers have traveled a grueling road, namely that of the Genocide. As Eliazyan noted, bearing the imprint of the “yeghern,” they have arrived “kaykayvadz yev vnasvadz” (destroyed and damaged) into the hands of the restorers. I could not help but make the parallel with the life and identity of diasporans and, specifically, many of the artists I have interviewed in my professional career, who are the descendants of this historical trauma and have used their artistic voices to negotiate their identities and recreate a new life for themselves in their new homes.
Many of these works reveal prior attempts at restoration by previous rescuers, most of whom were not trained professionals in the field, but rather, ordinary Armenians fiercely fighting to preserve the remnants of their culture. Sadly, much of this was improperly done and often harmed the object more than helped it. Yet Eliazyan acknowledged and expressed respect for the fact that the prior holders of these manuscripts, whether in monasteries or villages, made every attempt they could to preserve them from total destruction.
Notably, the restorers view their roles as doctors (Bachachyan called herself a “grki bjishk”) and the manuscripts as their patients that need treatment and healing. Eliazyan noted that “each manuscript has its own journey, its story, its life.” The specialized care and attention that each manuscript receives is guided by the restorers’ mission to “do no harm” and employ the least amount of intervention that can restore the manuscript to its original appearance and preserve it for as long as possible.
To truly appreciate the meticulous and careful work of these devoted restorers – and why I was moved so profoundly – it is helpful to note the extensive range of tasks they perform: determining the acidity of ink and neutralizing it when necessary; repairing leather covers; softening parchments; rebinding; assessing and monitoring the physical condition of manuscripts; determining/cleaning damage from fungus; disinfecting, removing dust and debris from candles, wax, and oil; treating documents; and fixing fading inks and miniature paints.
The restorers recognize the hardships endured by those who managed to save these manuscripts from total destruction and thus feel obligated to protect them for future generations. There is a deep sense of responsibility to the past because our ancestors, despite their dire circumstances, had risked so much in order to salvage these manuscripts. Now the responsibility rests on the new generation.
Recognizing the urgency and significance of the restorers’ work, I was overcome with gratitude: first, to the early determined deliverers of these manuscripts who recognized the treasures in their hands and risked much to save them; then to these passionate and committed restorers who tirelessly worked to salvage the remnants of our past and preserve it for the future. And it is within this continuum that my own diasporic desire to do the same was set aflame.
These treasures, then, first survived not only the initial rampage of historical trauma through foreign hands and genocide but also the impact of environmental damage (often the result of humidity, fungus, bacterial infections, rodents, moths, and insects), and then lived through attempted restoration in the hands of their untrained saviors, and now regain new life in the hands of the professionally trained restorers. Revived once more, they proudly step onto the world’s stage to boldly display their now-faint scars and proclaim the persistence of their cultural heritage.
Arguably, our cultural heritage is the foundation of our identity. The streets of Yerevan are peppered with sculptures and billboards, not of temporary political leaders whose legacy – until the recent rise of Nikol Pashinyan – has often been problematic, but of images of writers, composers, artists, and poets. So while the history of our people has been unpredictable and tumultuous, our cultural heroes have been the stable foundation upon which our identity has been constructed and maintained. It will be interesting to see how culture gains new life in this new political epoch in the aftermath of revolution.
As an art historian and museum studies professional/scholar, I am often conflicted when it comes to the issue of whether works of art should be restored. Part of me has always felt that the current condition of the object is part of its story. In other words, the wear and tear carried by these objects reveals their encounter with changing – and challenging – historical circumstances. But, as a diaspora Armenian, my stance has slightly shifted due to my encounter with these restored manuscripts.
I recognize that my emotionally charged response to my encounter with the Restoration Department was informed by the recent revolution. As a diaspora Armenian visiting my “hyrenik,” I can’t help but see the work of these restorers as acquiring renewed significance in the aftermath of the velvet revolution of May 2018. In what has been hailed as a “miracle” by the locals with whom I chatted, Armenians gathered together in Armenia as well as the diaspora, literally linking arms, to boldly (and loudly) declare their voices of discontent with a political system that has disregarded their wellbeing and harmed them for far too long. In other words, frustrated with the past couple of decades of political turmoil and corruption that had left them frayed, they fervently demanded change. And now, with renewed optimism, they are seeking to cleanse and restore their lives. Many of the locals I spoke to referred to the new hope they were experiencing, pointing to the immediate changes that had already occurred, and indicating that there was no better place to be than in Armenia.
I couldn’t agree more.
Ramela Grigorian Abbamontian is a Professor of Art History at Pierce College. She received her PhD in Art History from UCLA. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at firstname.lastname@example.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticsforum.org. To sign up for an electronic version of new articles, go to criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.
Link: Critics’ Forum: Matenadaran’s Restoration Department: Preserving Life and Culture