Armenia: A Family Affair

Armenian Diorama in the AMNH’s Hall of Asian Peoples.

Why create an Armenian diorama?

AMNH curators originally envisioned that the Armenian diorama would showcase Christianity within AMNH’s Hall of Asian Peoples. However, Eleanora Ordjanian, a key contributor to the diorama, and the Armenian American community had broader ambitions. For them, it was important that the exhibit teach the general public and subsequent generations of Armenian Americans, many of whom were descendants of genocide victims, about Armenian history and culture.

“They wanted the West to know, they wanted to know themselves, and they wanted their children to know that they were not just people living in villages who had been massacred. There was more to Armenian history and culture than that.” – Anahid Ordjanian

Eleanora Ordjanian, c.1979.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

What was Eleanora’s role?

In the late 1970s, Eleanora enlisted the help of her family and the Armenian American community to develop the diorama. She collected around 120 Armenian items from over 100 donors of Armenian descent. Eleanora visited the Museum regularly to transport these objects and help assemble the display. She also kept meticulous notes, eventually assembling a scrapbook detailing her involvement with the project.

“…it became my mother’s project. She worked every day on this for three years…it was a very profound experience for my parents…the whole project for the whole family.” – Anahid Ordjanian

Image from Eleanora’s scrapbook.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

Image from Eleanora’s scrapbook.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

What is the story behind the dress?

The Ordjanian family generously donated one of its most beloved heirlooms to the project. The dress worn by the female mannequin belonged to Eleanora’s grandmother, Arousiag, and has a unique history. Following the persecution and murder of her husband, Arousiag moved from Kars in Turkey to Persia (now Iran) with her dress. Two generations later, her family brought the dress to America where it was eventually donated to the Museum.

Arousiag, seated on the far left wearing her prized wedding dress, and her family. Eleanora’s mother, Arax sits between her parents. Kars, c.1900.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

“It’s wonderful that my great grandmother’s dress is there in the case. I remember my mother asking us, asking me, is it okay with you? We’re going to donate her dress. And I’m like, of course, this is going to be seen by millions of people over the course of the time, and I was thrilled…it would be preserved, that was very exciting.” – Armen Susan Ordjanian

Who modeled for the mannequins?

Eleanora’s daughter, Armen Susan Ordjanian, posed for the female mannequin while wearing her great-grandmother’s dress. Grigor Gevorkyan, an artist who also created public monuments in Armenia, sculpted the mannequin.

Armen went in for three sittings with Gevorkyan and recalls how he captured her likeness: “I got the impression it was never supposed to be an exact duplicate of me, it was supposed to be a representation, an archetype…but of an Armenian woman.”

Although Gevorkyan may have intended to represent an ideal Armenian woman, her participation in the sculpting process led to a mannequin which greatly resembles Armen.

Armen during the mannequin making process, c.1979.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

Armen, 2020.
Courtesy of Armen Susan Ordjanian.

Wrapped into this presentation of Armenian history and culture is the Ordjanian family’s story which crosses oceans and traverses four generations. Eleanora sadly passed away in 2004 but in 2021 Anahid and Armen shared fond memories of their family’s participation in the project. Thanks to the efforts of the Ordjanians and the Armenian American community, museum visitors can see an intimate representation of Armenian culture.

A look inside Eleanora’s scrapbook…

All quotes extracted from an interview with Anahid Ordjanian and Armen Susan Ordjanian.

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