About the Museum and its founders
Opened in 1992, the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum was built with a dual purpose: it is both an artistic endeavor and an attempt to reconstruct the history of the Armenian people through the ages. The museum houses an eclectic collection that spans more than three millennia, bringing coherence to the Armenian people’s history, which is fraught with hardships and glories. How the museum came to be is the story of a dream being fulfilled through the committed efforts of internationally known philanthropist Alex Manoogian and Archbishop Paren Avedikian (who was the pastor of St. John Armenian Church at the time), for both of whom the collecting and preserving of Armenian art and cultural artifacts was a true labor of love.
Born in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1901, Alex Manoogian was just a teenager when he witnessed the collapse of an entire civilization. In 1915, some 1.5 million Armenians then living on the Anatolian plateau (usually referred to as western Armenia or historic Armenia) were the victims of genocide in Ottoman Turkey. The majority of those who survived were dispersed around the world. The young Alex Manoogian ultimately fled to America and lived in a number of different cities, before arriving in Detroit in 1924. He proceeded to rebuild his life, bringing his family to join him. He later married Marie Tatian—a performing artist in her own right. They were blessed with two children, Louise and Richard.
Before Manoogian founded Masco Corporation in 1929 (now a Fortune 500 company) and became a successful businessman, he had been a prize student in his art classes, and he never lost his appreciation for the arts. Instead of pursuing a career in art, however, he used his aesthetic abilities in other areas, most specifically combining them with his compelling drive to piece together his ancestral culture. Two monumental expressions of that drive are St. John Armenian Church and the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum.
The building of St. John was achieved through Manoogian’s personal initiative and hands-on efforts. He was given full responsibility for overseeing the design and construction of the church by the Armenian Apostolic Society, a group of local Detroit area Armenians organized as a nonprofit to own and support both the church and the museum. He enlisted the creative talents of two prominent architects, Suren Pilafian, an Armenian-American, and Edouard Utujian, from France. Both were dispatched to Armenia to study the fundamental features of traditional Armenian architecture that would provide the basis for the church’s design, interpreted in a modern idiom. An altar server and deacon for eighty years, Manoogian always felt close to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. When he knelt down to worship in the St. John sanctuary, he felt very much at home. It was as if he were in communion with his ancestors.
The Manoogian Museum was a complementary achievement. In parallel to the revival of Armenian church architecture, it was intended to house the relics of a storied culture. St. John Church (which is of cathedral-like proportions) and the museum are the twin pillars of Alex Manoogian’s pride in Detroit and his Armenian heritage. The church sanctuary, the museum, the cultural center, the A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School, the Edward and Helen Mardigian Library, the Veterans’ Memorial Building, gymnasium, and sports center in one complex constitute an Armenian hub, with the Armenian Apostolic Society serving as the holding entity.
Long before the museum project was conceived, the collection of art pieces and artifacts had begun with the hope of housing them in a single edifice sometime in the future. Alex Manoogian provided the inspiration, the leadership, and the resources from his successes as an innovative industrialist, which Bishop Avedikian (now serving in Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia) converted into a collection of unique treasures. The strength of their commitment to the idea of a museum and their enthusiasm for the effort garnered increasing support from the metro-Detroit Armenian community, and the seed of an idea blossomed.
Because the destruction of historic Armenia during the genocide period resulted in the worldwide dispersal of its paintings, books, manuscripts, sacred objects, and even ancient artifacts, locating and identifying these objects presented a tremendous challenge to those involved in the collecting process. Some objects were in private hands (not necessarily Armenian) and some were with Armenian families who were descended from survivors of the genocide, while other objects were in museums. The treasures that found their way to the Manoogian Museum came via various avenues—some were purchased by Alex Manoogian through his Manoogian Foundation, others were gifts to the museum or to Alex Manoogian himself.
Items in the collection were discovered in many different parts of the globe. A copy of the first printed Armenian Bible (1666) by Vosgan Yerevantsi (Bishop Oskan Erewants’i) was acquired from Dacca (Dhaka), Bangladesh; a brass tray depicting Armenian royalty was found in Australia; and ancient manuscripts and rugs were rescued from historic Armenia. That any manuscripts at all survived is a bit of a miracle, considering that the Turks spent months burning the more than 10,000 manuscripts housed at the island monastery of Lim on Lake Van, near the city of Van, during the genocide period. One of the most unusual gifts to the museum is a sixteenth-century khach‘k‘ar (cross-stone) that was removed from a burial site in Noraduz (Soviet Armenia) and presented to the Manoogian Museum by His Holiness Vazgen I (also Vasken I), Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. Through various painstaking efforts by many individuals, all these treasures were finally brought together with loving care in one place.
Rather than presuming to present the best examples of Armenian art and craft, the collection is instead broad-ranging and the curatorial goal is that each piece be treated and displayed with academic rigor. A team of historians and scholars has toiled for many years to place the collection in historical perspective. In the museum’s galleries, individual artifacts are presented in the broader context of their respective categories. Over time, as items were acquired or donated, the museum was shaped into eight categories—paintings, rugs and carpets, sacred vessels and vestments, textiles, household and personal objects, early printed books, illuminated manuscripts, and ancient objects—and these collections were then installed in specially designed galleries. The 12,000-square-foot museum also includes areas designated for research and storage. The end result is that the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum holds the largest and most representative collection of Armenian art outside Armenia.
The museum is not a static institution—over the years, changes have been made, and it continues to grow and enrich its holdings. At the time of this publication, the museum collection numbered over 1,500 items—99 percent of which are over one hundred years old. The number of items on display varies, with approximately one-third on view at any given time.
When historic Armenia was destroyed, its art treasures were assumed to be doomed to the same fate. The collection of the Manoogian Museum bears witness to their indestructible survival. The fifth-century author Moses of Khoren, the founding father of Armenian history (sometimes referred to as the “Armenian Herodotus”) encapsulated the dichotomy of the Armenian fate in his History of the Armenians: “For although we are a small nation and very restricted in numbers, weak in power, and often subject to another’s rule, yet many valiant deeds have been performed in our land worthy of being recorded in writing.” The mission and the dream of the founders of the museum were to celebrate those deeds of valor and pass these stories on to future generations.
The founders also aspired to breathe new life into a broken civilization by bringing into focus disparate fragments of the Armenian cultural heritage. As author William Saroyan wrote: “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” If the museum had a voice it would sing Saroyan’s “song” as Armenian treasures come together.
The goal of the museum is to be a testimony to a people—to recreate historic Armenia in microcosm, an Armenia with its creative genius and sustain this legacy for future generations. Something that Henry Ford said of the famous metropolitan-Detroit-area museum that bears his name captures Alex Manoogian’s goal succinctly: “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used....When we are through, we shall have reproduced life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition.”
In the years following the 1992 opening of the museum, an ongoing outreach effort was established. Since Archbishop Paren Avedikian’s relocation to Etchmiadzin, Armenia, in 1993, Lucy Ardash has assumed curatorial responsibilities at the Museum, eminently discharging her duties. Annually, thousands of people visit or take guided tours of the museum. In addition, it has accommodated many scholars from around the world, enabling them to conduct primary research on the premises. On occasion, the museum has loaned some of its artifacts to major museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Manoogian family continues the tradition of support and leadership to ensure the perpetuity of this unique institution, where these Armenian treasures have found a permanent home—one that is close to the descendants of the survivors of historic Armenia. At the same time, this Museum complements the first Manoogian Museum dedicated in 1982 in Etchmiadzin, Armenia. We hope this catalogue helps all Armenians to better understand and appreciate their heritage and that it also provides an overview of our culture to those not familiar with Armenian history.
Edmond Y. Azadian