Armenia! at the Met: Fabulous, Albeit Complete Failure

This article appeared in the blog Armeniaca on December 1, 2018.

Promotional poster for the Armenia! exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum

A distinguished art historian and well-known specialist of Byzantium, Helen Evans has been working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years. Among the exhibitions she has organized, let us mention ‘The Glory of Byzantium (843-1261)’ in 1997 and ‘Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)’ in 2004. Such topics involved necessarily neighboring Armenia. Evans’ growing interest for Armenian art was finally materialized by the present widely publicized exhibition called ‘Armenia!’, where the curious exclamation mark may reflect some kind of admiration. More important is the absence of any mention of period in the title, contrary to the two above mentioned Byzantine exhibitions. At first glance, it suggests that the exhibition should cover the three millennia of Armenian history, or at least, if one decides to exclude Urartu, the period from 500 BC to our days. This is not the case: it begins at the dawn of the 4th century with the Christianization of Armenia and totally ignores one millennium of pagan Armenia. As an example, the absence of the name of the most famous of all Armenian kings, Tigranes the Great (1st century BC), in an exhibition called ‘Armenia!’ looks strange, if not unacceptable. It would have been fair to call the exhibition ‘Christian Armenia!’, and briefly explain on an introductory panel that Armenia did exist long before, and that Christianization opened a new artistic era. Such was the case of the exhibition properly called ‘Armenia Sacra’ in Paris (Musée du Louvre, 2007).

The quality of the various items displayed here is properly amazing. The exhibition succeeded in obtaining some incredibly rich loans, some of them having systematically been refused before, as a manuscript of the greatest Armenian miniaturist, T’oros Roslin (13th century), lent by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Let us also mention the fabulous wooden door of the Mush Surb Karapet monastery, now kept in a private collection; this is probably a unique opportunity to admire it.

Many other similar examples can be given, but an exhibition is not merely a collection of masterpieces. It has to be a pedagogical tool and lead the visitor into a world essentially unknown, helping him to discover it. Unfortunately, this is not the case for ‘Armenia!’ First of all, the absence of any map, from the very beginning to the end, is amazing. Does everyone know what and where Armenia even is? Even for those who know it, where are Cilicia, Vaspurakan, Sevan, Syunik, and so on? These provinces remain purely abstract names. Even in the last section, dedicated to the trade routes, not a single itinerary is explicitly shown. As for the catalogue, it includes, at the very beginning (p. 24-25), a single map, which stretches from Eastern America to Japan. Armenia is so tiny that the names of dozens of cities and monasteries are illegible; the provinces are totally omitted!

This huge gap could have been, at least partly, compensated by some adequate historical explanations, but these are absent from the exhibition and the catalogue. A glance at the list of contributors shows that it exclusively involves art historians; there is practically not a single historian in spite of the fact that the evolution of art cannot be dissociated from the historical frame.

As a first consequence of this absence of historical control, precision is often lacking and mistakes are frequent. Let us quote a few of them:

  • After 387, Armenia was not “made a vassal state of Iran”; it was divided between Byzantium and Persia (p. 209)
  • The dates of the historian Movses Khorenatsi are still controversial, between the 5th and the 8th or even 9th century: the precise dates “(410-490)” assigned here make no sense (p. 29)
  • The annexation of Kars took place in 1065, not in “1054” (p. 34)
  • The mother of Queen Melisende was not from “Edessa,” but from Melitene (p. 35)
  • The first husband of Zabel was not “deposed,” but put to death (p. 35, 130)
  • King Levon V was not “buried” in Saint-Denis – where his tombstone was transferred in the 19th century, but in the Celestins’ convent (p. 36)
  • The name “Armenia Maritima” for the Crimean coast is a myth (p. 88)
  • This southern coast of Crimea was in the hand of the Genovese alone, not the “Venetians and Genovese” (p. 164)
  • The foundation of the Armenian Patriarchate in 1461 by sultan Mehmed II and the bishop of Bursa is purely mythic (p. 172, 253)
  • The patriarch of Jerusalem was not at all restricted “on a local level” (p. 233)

The exhibition captions and the catalogue notices are full of interesting details concerning the description of the objects, but they generally omit the historical context in full. For example, let us have a look at the section dealing with Armenians in Italy (p.164): when, why, how did they settle there? No answer. Even worse for Jerusalem (p. 218), where the foundation of the Patriarchate is totally ignored and the famous mosaics quoted without any reproduction—the only picture being the interior of the cathedral. As for the famous map of K’eomiwrchean (1691), why do neither the caption nor the article (p. 301) mention its amazing story: it was considered as lost until its discovery by chance in Bologna three centuries later! Let us add that usually a catalogue recalls, for each object,the former exhibitions where it has been already displayed: no such precision is given here for any of them.

The name “Kingdom of Cilicia” is a widespread mistake all over the exhibition and the catalogue. Such a kingdom has never existed: in Cilicia, there has been in a “Kingdom of Armenia,” so called by the Armenians as well as all their neighbors (Arabs, Greeks, Franks,…). To be geographically more precise, one may speak of “Cilician Armenia.” A few rooms away from ‘Armenia!’, the museum has a permanent showcase containing some silver coins from that kingdom, where one can read explicitly “King of Armenia.” Why didn’t the exhibition display some of these coins?

As for the birth of this last Kingdom of Armenia far away from the motherland, there is a more serious problem. One reads that at some moment “Armenians moved into Cilicia” (p. 34), without any explanation. Were they tourists? The reason given elsewhere, “the Byzantine defeat at the battle of Manzikert” (p. 134), is absurd: that battle took place in 1071 between Byzantines and Seljuk Turks. It did not involve the Armenians. The real reason has to be found somewhat earlier, when these same Seljuk Turks captured Ani in 1064. Why is this event carefully ignored here, as it had been on p. 31, where one can read, without any explanation, that the monuments of Ani “stand even now in ruins”? These ruins are “on the modern closed border between the Turkish and Armenian Republics” (p. 66). On which side? And why is this border “closed”? While it is correctly recalled that the Kingdom of Cilician Armenia was destroyed by the Mamluks in 1375 (p. 164), why aren’t the Turks mentioned for the destruction of the Bagratid Kingdom of Ani in 1064? Anyway, the word ‘Turks’ is totally absent of the catalogue, as one can check it in the index. Is it by chance?

These questions lead us to some more political considerations. As we have seen, the exhibition begins with the Christianization of Armenia—which would make sense if it were explicit. It ends with the 18th century, allowing to omit the tragic fate of the Armenians from the 19th century on, and particularly the genocide.

Like the silence about the fate of Ani, several other indications are somewhat puzzling.

  • One speaks of the “monastery of the Holy Apostles in Mush” (p. 97) without specifying that it was destroyed by the Turks during the 20th century.
  • Among the jewels of this exhibition, one has already mentioned the carved door of the Surb Karapet monastery, also in Mush (p. 109). How did this door survive the destruction of the whole monument? Why isn’t there a single word about that? Maybe because any answer would necessarily include the word ‘genocide.’
  • The only explicit mention of depravity concerns the cemetery of khachkars of Julfa in Nakhchivan. One reads (p. 91) that they “were deliberately destroyed in the 1990s, in an attempt to eliminate any trace of Armenian presence from the region.” Although the date is wrong—it took place in 2005—there is at least a correct mention. But why isn’t the name of Azerbaijan, the author of this crime, mentioned
  • This province of Nakhchivan counted many monasteries, which had been photographed before they were completely destroyed by Azerbaijan. There is not a single trace of any of them, neither in the exhibition nor in the catalogue. Is it in order to avoid putting that state in accusation?
  • Monuments of Lori, Syunik or Vaspurakan are largely mentioned, but those of Artsakh-Karabakh, which are not less important, are practically absent, in particular the famous monastery of Gandzasar, briefly mentioned only once (p. 178), which did not deserve any picture or commentary. Is that in order to avoid speaking of Azerbaijan’s claims?

In one word, as in each case, it is obvious that Turks and Azeris were aware of that exhibition from the very beginning. Did they pressure authorities in order to avoid the mention of anything that could recall their criminal policy toward Armenians? Let us consider another hypothesis: the United States’ friendly relations with these ‘Republics’ may have resulted in an automatic censorship by the museum authorities themselves.

Finally, the incredible absence of any map may enter very well in such a frame. Maps are potentially dangerous: they suppose borders, presence of populations, leading one to ask why the Armenians, so numerous and active in such an area, have totally disappeared there. The answer has to come from Ankara and Baku.

This exhibition is included in the museum entrance ticket, so that a lot of people pass through it. I paid attention to these visitors: it was obvious they were delighted by the beauty of what they saw, but also obvious that they did not understand anything of the context. What a waste! Armenia has still to wait…

As a conclusion, one can say that ‘Armenia!’ is a fabulous display of Christian Armenian art until the 18th century, but that as an Armenian exhibition, it is a complete failure, unworthy of an institution as famous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Claude Mutafian

Claude Mutafian

Dr. Claude Armen Mutafian was born in 1942 to a family that escaped the Armenian Genocide. He is a mathematics professor and Doctor of Historical Sciences. He is a Member of the National Academy of Science of Armenia and has also taught mathematics at universities in France and other countries. His travels to modern-day Turkey and Armenia since 1980 have led him to discover many hidden aspects of history, especially of the medieval Middle East and particularly of Cilician Armenia. He is an author of several publications on this topic. During his lecture he presented the results of his study, which emphasizes the role of Armenians in Eastern European regions including Moldavia, Walachia, and Transylvania.
Claude Mutafian

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  1. Thank you for bringing these points up, I did spend an entire day at the exhibit in early September, and was overcome with joy and sadness throughout the whole experience, going between tears of belonging and anger at the lack of any mention of the historical importance and suffering of our people. I was longing to become a curator myself for the few non Armenians that were wondering thru the exhibit and marveling at the pieces displayed. Let’s hope that maybe in their next attempt these mistakes will be corrected.

  2. This is an art exhibition not a historical or political showcase. This is better than nothing. Visitors will be exposed to some of the history and if it intrigues their curiosity they will be able to research by themselves.

    • An art exhibit, especially in an institution like the Met, must be historically accurate, especially since it is displaying historical artifacts. As such, artifacts presented without proper context is indeed problematic.

    • Really? You find it acceptable that there was not a single map on the walls? I saw perplexed visitors trying to figure out where Armenia, Cilicia, Crimea, Ani, Vaspurakan were. It’s just unbelievable!

  3. Let it be known that there are many Armenologists who are afraid of speaking the truth lest they lose their university positions.

  4. In complete agreement. To talk about Armenia and omit Urartu and the Artashesian dynasty is to talk about the Protestant reformation without mentioning Martin Luther. There was a similar National Geographic issue, where once more Armenia was omitted from a map detailing conversion of Christianity globally, absolute shocker—you see conversion of Rome and Constantinople, yet Armenia is left out; so be it. But what this means, without question, there truly is an international agenda to degrade Armenian history, from our ancient warrior classes during Urartu and King Tigran, to Bagratuni kingdom battling Arabs/Mongols/Byzantines, we are left only reminded faint glimpses of our history. There is an international agenda, most likely pushed by Azerbaijan and Turkey and others who see it fit to degrade a Great people with a rich and ancient history.

    Anytime an exhibit showcases Armenia and all that is focused is post Christianity, it bewilders me that our community leaders do not get outraged. We need our own museum, our own movies, our own documentaries. If you let others showcase our work, make no mistake, it will be hijacked by good old Baku-Istanbul-and many more money toting.


    1. Armenians make your own superb world renowned museum
    2. Make top of the line high quality movies and documentaries about our history from Urartu, King Tigran, Bagratuni, Cilicia
    3. Turks spend millions on soft propaganda about their boring sultans who cannot even measure up to Tigran or Urartu and they have won the hearts of all of Latin America. When we do our telethons dedicate funds to real good movies by real good historical experts, not that junk, trash promise that was also hijacked and downplayed.

  5. Turkey’s gag rule is omnipresent seeping into every aspect of life. Art like everthing else cannot exist without context. Thank you so much Claude for this invaluable expose. You and others who speak truth to power are our modern national treasures.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with Lola Koundakjian. Claude is being absurd: I went today to check and there is no map of Egypt in several of the Egyptian exhibits as well, apart from the Nile Valley. Claude Mutafian would have done a lot more good if he had gently pointed out the historical mistakes to Helen or the Met and I am sure that –time permitting–they would have made the changes. We are lucky that an American art historian of Evans’ standing has now put on THREE shows related to Armenian culture. Why on EARTH would she mention Urartu? She is a medievalist and the show is on MEDIEVAL Armenia. I attended a French lycée until 10th Grade–and the attitude displayed in this article reminds me of the endless quibbling and critical attitude that the gallic mind too often displays–seeing the negative rather than the positive in everything.

  7. I agree with the article. I went to the exhibit. I found it strange as well that there were no maps. I thought the ending painting from India was odd!
    I felt there should have been information after the 17th century, a brief summary of the Genocide. It ended very oddly. Also the gift shop had no books on the Armenian Genocide. There was jewlery sold made by Michael Aram but no Forget Me Not flower piece.
    More than obvious that this exhibit was censored!

  8. Mutafian has done a great service. Many laypeople were disappointed by this show and the accompanying merchandise (jelly? a PERSIAN cookbook?) but were told “well, you are no expert in Armenian history to pass judgment” and “stop being so picky.” Well, an expert in Armenian history HAS just passed his judgment and the commentaries are eerily similar to what laypeople were saying. The sooner Armenians wake up to the worldwide censors and stop bowing down anytime Armenians simply are given the time of day, the sooner we can preserve a culture which — let’s be honest — is on the road to extinction.

  9. Thank you so much Patil, whoever you are, for letting me know that my culture and myself are on the road to extinction. I am sure that better merchandising on the part of the Met would do a lot to change that.

  10. Great points. I was troubled by the very narrow scope of the exhibit. It was a step in the right direction but if it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing correctly and accurately. Thank you for this article to set the historical record straight.

  11. I recently saw the exhibit. I was not impressed to say the least. I agree with Mr. Mutafyan. It totally lacked historic perspective. I also don’t think it was unintentional. I also agree with Patil. When we as a people keep saying to ourselves “it’s better than nothing”, we as a people are in effect heading towards nothingness…

  12. I understand that the author of the article is passionate/knowledgeable about Armenian history, the political events and context that shaped it, and that his standards of historical accuracy or correct interpretation of the Armenian psyche and political thinking may be difficult to match by any exhibit!

    That being said, MET Armenia! is perfect for the ‘average’ guest (i.e. yours truly!) and gives a positive and quite realistic image of the Armenian civilization post-Christianity: that of a nation that was global (by its geographic presence and activities) and spiritual (with its culture emphasizing almost exclusively its christian essence). Attributes that are considered assets and are highly relevant in today’s globalized and fast paced world.

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