Final Thoughts on the Museums and Community Workshop in Armenia (Ronan Brindley, Manchester Art Gallery)

Ronan Brindley, ITP UK Partner Representative at Manchester Art Gallery, has been back in Armenia with ITP fellows Hayk Mkrtchyan (ITP 2014/Senior Fellow 2017), Marine Mkrtchyan (ITP 2014), Davit Poghosyan (ITP 2015) and Astghik Marabyan (ITP 2017), among others, running a museum summer school! This follows the ITP, Museum Education Center and Manchester Art Gallery workshop Learning, education and museums, held in Yerevan in October 2016.

Hear about the final day of the summer school from Ronan below, and about his weekend in Armenia, shared with the ITP fellows…

Written by Ronan Brindley, Head of Learning, Manchester Art Gallery (ITP UK Partner Representative: Manchester)

Friday was the final day of our summer school at the SMART Center in Lori.  The delegates had split into four groups and made presentations about how their museums could connect with community audiences and how these ideas could relate to developments at the SMART Center. The brilliant and insightful proposals featured target groups such as housewives, 18-35 year olds and close neighbours, and strands like eco-tourism, jewellery making, fashion and woodcraft. It was hard work summing up but huge credit to all involved. Not only did we pull a huge number of good ideas with limited time, but we succeeded in the ITP spirit of developing ideas together, offering each other friendly criticism and working for the common good. I think we all agreed that it was positive test of a ‘laboratory of ideas’ method.

1. Smart Center, Lori, from above

SMAR Center, Lori, from above

After the session Hayk Mkrtchyan (ITP 2014/Senior Fellow 2017), Anahit Minasyan (DVV International Cultural Programmes Coordinator/ITP Yerevan participant 2016) and I handed out the certificates.  And yes, using the cliche, it was emotional.  Colleagues, peers and now friends.

2. Signing the certificates

The certificates, in Armenian script

We were also joined by the Teen Council from the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan and a group of the young people from the locality who take part in the COAF programme. Their strong views were openly and expertly articulated, grounding all of us: museums would have to change to include them or otherwise we would become extinct; museums could no longer be ‘givers’ of knowledge. This was precisely what we’d been discussing at the summer school, but is all the more powerful when it comes back at us from the real experts whose opinions should be the measure of our success. Engaging in the discussion were two members of Armenian Creative Industries and, to be honest, they got a rougher time than us, being challenged about lack of opportunities for young people and extremely low levels of pay. It transpires that 67% of museum workers in Armenia earn less than £500 per year, most being dependent on a second job or additional income source.

3. Cafesjian Teen Council grill the experts

The young Armenians tell us precisely what they think

As mentioned, the young input was grounding and humbling.  But they also voiced what they liked – their heritage, engagement in the arts and the creative atmosphere of the cultural workplace, as some of them had experience at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts.

After multiple goodbyes and hugs, it was time to depart.  Part of me was looking forward to returning to Yerevan, but part of me was sad to be leaving the beauty of Lori and the amazing SMART Center and accommodation.  The journey was interesting, taking a detour to Hayk and Marine Mkrtchyan’s (ITP 2014)’s holiday home at Odzan for a meal of salami, cheese, bread and fruit (the ever present apricots and cherries).

4. Church at Odzan

Monastery at Odzan

With a slightly later start on Saturday, Hayk, Davit Poghosyan (ITP 2015) and newest friend Zepyur collected me from my hotel and we set out for the western province of Armavir.  First stop was the Musaler Memorial Museum.  Musaler is a town in modern-day Turkey.  During the 1915 genocide, Armenians from the surrounding area withdrew to a mountain above Musaler.  Besieged by numerically superior Turkish forces, they held out for 40 days.  Making a huge red cross flag, they summoned the attention of French naval vessels in the area, who proceeded to mount an evacuation, rescuing 4,800 who were then taken to Port Said.  The museum inside the memorial commemorates this action, which took place roughly at the same time as the Allies’ attempted operation at Gallipoli.

5. Masoler Memorial Museum front view

Musaler Memorial Museum front view

From there, we traveled across the dry terrain to Sardarapat and the Memorial Complex of Sadarapat Battle and National Museum of Armenian Ethnography.

6. Sardarapat Memorial approach

Sadarapat Memorial approach

After a guided tour of the large museum complex, we had a meeting with the Director, Karen Aristakesyan, in his office: cue excellent coffee and more wonderful apricots, picked in the memorial garden.

7. Tombstone 1609

Ram tombstone, 1609

8. Bronze Age cauldron

Bronze Age cauldron

Karen is one of those significant museum leaders, who has a deep experience and understanding of museum cultures and maintains a fresh insight and vision to future developments. He previously has worked as Deputy Minister of Culture, so can see the arguments in the political context. Suggesting we adjourn for a late lunch, we departed for the museum’s restaurant which is set in the grounds and serves traditional Armenian food. Karen plans to develop a kitchen that explores recipes from historical accounts and extends the notion of culinary research and heritage.  Then came the brandy and toasts, and a variety of Karen’s stories from his museum career. The latter included a bizarre encounter between Karen and a certain D. Trump!

9. Meeting the director, Karen Aristakesyan

Meeting the Director, Karen Aristakesyan

At the end of the meal, the clouds cleared and Mount Ararat made an appearance – the omen for a good future.  We departed to return to Yerevan, a short journey to another meal (at Anahit Minasyan’s house, and to meet her artist son). I will have to adopt a strict diet on my return to the UK!

10. Mount Ararat appears

Mount Ararat appears