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Armenia: Exhibition Opens At Ellis Island Amid Photo Dispute

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 12 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An exhibition on Armenia, including descriptive photographs of the massacre suffered by many of its citizens at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, has opened in New York City amid a dispute and cries of censorship.

The exhibition called "Armenia: Memories From My Home" opened Monday at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, but without some key photographs and explanatory text, says the show's main organizer.

Margaret Tellalian Kyrkostas, Director and Curator of the Anthropology Museum at Queens College in New York City, told RFE/RL that her show was censored by Ellis Island museum staff who asked her to remove 15 photographs they considered too "gruesome" for display.

The photographs in dispute are ones that show decapitated heads, mass graves and public hangings, says Kyrkostas, who was born in the U.S. but is the daughter of Armenian immigrants.

"Why should we have to remove the photographs?" asks Kyrkostas. "This is history. I'm an academician and I never produce exhibits that are not documented with facts. Everything I prepared for this exhibition is something that took place and is presented without bias and without editorial comment."

But Manny Strumpf, a spokesman for the U.S. National Parks Service -- the federal agency that runs the museum -- told RFE/RL that there was no censorship involved in the decision to ask the organizers to remove some of the photographs.

"[The request] was in no shape or form intended to minimize, downplay or eliminate the mention of the massacres," says Strumpf. "There are still photographs and central displays in the exhibition that cover this area. The purpose behind asking the organizers to remove certain photographs was that they were deemed to be too gruesome in nature for the general public."

Strumpf adds that more than a million people from around the world visit the museum every year, many of them young children.

"Imagine bringing your three-year old niece to the exhibition and having to explain why some person is holding another person's head. There are ways of getting the message across without offending anyone's sensitivities," says Strumpf.

But Kyrkostas says the whole point of the exhibition is to let the pictures tell the story as it really happened. She says the museum could have simply placed a disclaimer at the start of the exhibition warning parents that some photographs may be offensive or too frightening for small children. She insists that by removing the photographs, the museum has censored her full story.

"Of course, I consider this censorship ... I mean, why did Armenians come [to the U.S.] in the first place? Because they were being persecuted and massacred. So it is all a part of the immigration story."

Rouben Adalian, Director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington told RFE/RL that he agrees with Kyrkostas and considers the removal of the photographs to be an attempt to "sanitize" history.

"We are going to have to consider this censorship, because those photographs are a truthful reflection of what happened to the Armenian people. Those photographs are some of the best evidence of very, very significant events," says Adalian.

But Strumpf says the Armenian story can be still told but in a "tactful" manner that makes it understandable and accessible to people of all ages.

Strumpf adds that as a federal agency, "the last thing in the world we want to do is to deprive people of their right" to freedom of expression.

He says the museum staff works very hard to ensure that all exhibitions, regardless of topic or content, are presented in a manner that will not "upset the sensitivities" of the public.

Strumpf adds the museum has asked the same of many other exhibition organizers and that they are not singling out the Armenians.

Kyrkostas says she eventually agreed to open the exhibition, minus the 15 photographs, because she "had no other choice."

"Besides, we wanted to make people aware of what happened to the Armenians -- not only were we massacred, but that we survived and have made many contributions to the American way of life," she says.

The exhibition, which runs through February, covers the massacre of more than one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923. The exhibit also focuses on other events significant to Armenian history and culture.