Shushi’s Occupied Museums

On November 10, 2020, Azerbaijan seized ancestral Armenian lands in the democratic Republic of Artsakh following an unprovoked military offensive launched on September 27. Today, Azerbaijan controls the majority of the ethnically Armenian enclave, which has been populated by Indigenous Armenians since at least the 2nd century BCE, according to written records

As many museums engage in a transnational discourse about foregrounding Indigenous voices in their exhibition practices, museums in occupied Artsakh face the threat of historical erasure and cultural cleansing. 

Occupied Artsakh encompasses the city of Shushi, the Republic’s cultural center. Shushi, known to Azerbaijanis as Shusha, is home to six small museums, several established by individual founders with a single private collection. They comprise the Shushi History Museum, the State Museum of Geology, the Shushi Carpet Museum, the State Museum of Fine Arts, Shushi Art Gallery, and the Shushi Armenian Numismatic Museum. 

The Shushi History Museum was founded as a pedagogical effort to shed light on the lifeworlds of Armenians in the city from the ancient period to the present. Its specimens ranged from local newspapers to exhibits devoted to the domestic interiors of notable Shushi residents like Tadevos Tamiryants.

The State Museum of Geology was founded by Professor Grigor Gabrielyants in 2014, and houses over 500 stones and gems, many of which originated in Artsakh. The Shushi Carpet Museum opened in 2011, displaying roughly 300 examples of textiles from the private collection of Vardan Astsatryan that date to the 17th to the 20th centuries, with a particular focus on the local carpet-weaving heritage.

Astsatryan described the Museum as an effort to save those traditions from Azerbaijani appropriation. Among its exhibits is a carpet woven by his grandmother. The State Museum of Fine Arts boasted a collection of roughly 800 works, including those by artists Martiros Saryan, Minas Avetisyan, and Hagop Hagopian, some of the most prominent names in Armenian modern art. 

Shushi’s museums were established after the Armenians of Artsakh won the right to self-governance through a liberation war fought against the backdrop of a dissolving Soviet Union from 1988 to 1994.

Melanya Balayan, the director of the Artsakh State History Museum, said in an interview that Shushi’s museums were originally created as part of a broader post-Soviet cultural revitalization project. This project aimed to resurface the histories of Armenian cultural production in Artsakh that had been actively suppressed under the Soviet regime. Today, the collections of all but one of Shushi’s museums are under Azerbaijani control.

After capturing the city through unfathomable violence, petro-oligarchic President Ilham Aliyev declared Shushi the “capital of Azerbaijani culture.” He has since also announced that with the aid of Turkey he will build a school in Shushi run by the Grey Wolves, a far-right ultra-nationalist Pan-Turkic organization that was recently banned in France after its members began to “hunt for Armenians” on the streets of Lyon during the Second Artsakh War. The groundbreaking of the school will be attended by Aliyev and Turkish President Rayyip Erdogan.

Similar acts of epistemic violence and dazzling revisionism are oft-implemented by Azerbaijani state actors. When the world’s largest Armenian necropolis in the Azerbajani-controlled exclave of Nakhchivan was demolished — including monuments dating to the 6th century CE — Azerbaijan continuously denied that the site had been destroyed “because it never existed in the first place.”

Despite corroboration from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a major forensic report released by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman in Hyperallergic, Azerbaijani representatives maintained that “the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century” had never taken place. Because, as they insisted, there had never been any Indigenous Armenian cultural heritage there to begin with. 

After 300-year-old Armenian carpets were evacuated to Yerevan from the Shushi Carpet Museum, Azerbaijan called it an act of “theft and misappropriation” by Armenians and urged UNESCO to intervene. Azerbaijani officials asserted that the carpets were looted and were, in fact, Azerbaijani carpets.

Repudiating what the Smithsonian has called “the age-old tradition of Armenian carpet making,” which dates to the 5th century BCE, Azerbaijan argued that these carpets could not have been Armenian because “historically the Armenians were not engaged in carpet weaving.”

Denying archaeological records, the accounts of Ancient Greek historian Strabo, and an extensive body of international scholarship—all of which attest to the long presence of Armenians in Artsakh—Azerbaijan issues ethnoterritorial claims that hinge on a programmatic policy of Indigenous erasure. Narine Khachaturyan, Armenia’s former deputy minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport, describes Azerbaijan’s policy to Hyperallergic as follows: “Whoever will tell the biggest lie will be the victor.”

Recognizing the imminent dangers facing the region’s museums, cultural workers in both Artsakh and Armenia organized disaster response measures immediately after the September 27 attacks. Lusine Gasparyan, director of Shushi Museums, told Hyperallergic she recalls waking up in Stepanakert that morning to the shelling of her building, one of the first hit in the early offensive.

By 10am, she had arrived in Shushi to gather official museum documents. Under continuous bombardment, Gasparyan would regularly return to Shushi over the next month to package and transport museum collections to the basement of the State Museum of Fine Arts for safekeeping, with the aid of artist Armen Petrosyan.

By the end of October, Gasparyan recounts, the city was almost exclusively populated by soldiers. The majority of civilians had either fled or were sheltering in their basements, and officers would cast puzzled glances at Gasparyan and Petrosyan as they carried packaged artworks through the street in between shelling. To avoid periods of extended artillery fire,

Gasparyan sheltered in Shushi for several nights rather than risk the trip back to Stepanakert. With one exception, the museums’ collections were not evacuated from the city. It was unfathomable to its inhabitants that Shushi could fall. 

Today, it’s unclear what has become of the cultural objects that Gasparyan labored to preserve. The windows of the State Museum of Fine Arts were shattered by nearby shelling, but the edifice stands, according to Gasparyan. The status of the collections transported to its basement remains unknown. As Khachaturyan puts it, “No one knows anything for certain now…We know only that those works are not with us and that we are not allowed to go and see them.” 

In an interview, Ani Avagyan, the chair of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Armenia, explained that “we learn news about what’s happening to Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh only when Azerbajani soldiers post videos to social media platforms.” The content posted typically memorializes acts of cultural desecration.

Recently, the Artsakh Cultural Ministry appealed to Azerbaijani leadership and Russian peacekeeping forces to return 1,500 artworks held in occupied Artsakh, but to no avail. Azerbaijan has repeatedly rejected UNESCO’s proposal to send an independent delegation of experts to inventory cultural objects in Artsakh, and UNESCO has done little to intervene beyond issuing a 327-word press release.

Gasparyan has submitted a letter to UNESCO requesting aid, which remains unanswered. (Not by happenstance, Azerbaijan has made fiscal contributions to UNESCO in the millions, as Nevdon Jamgochian explains in this edition.) With Avagyan at its helm, ICOM Armenia has campaigned for the inclusion of cultural heritage protections in negotiations, issuing a report that points to the likelihood of “cultural genocide or cultural cleansing.”

Amid thunderous silence on the part of global art communities, Armenia and Artsakh’s cultural workers remain uncertain about the future of museums and their collections in occupied Artsakh. Per Gasparyan, “We can’t envision what tomorrow in Artsakh will look like…With the fate of Armenian POWs [still held in Azerbaijan] uncertain, there can be little hope for the fate of our cultural heritage.”

If decolonizing the museum requires reckoning with settler colonial histories, how do we approach decolonization in a state where history itself is a principal target of erasure? 

As Melanya Balayan suggests, one crucial intervention lies in circulating counter-narratives to oppose the falsified histories distributed by Azerbaijan. With Vahram Balayan, she has been fundraising to translate their research on the history of Artsakh into English. For Balayan, educating non-Armenian speakers could constitute a meaningful step toward building transnational coalitions for heritage protections. 

“I call on the international community of museum professionals to raise their voice,” says Avagyan. “States will disappear. New states will be created. But cultural heritage will [safeguard] our memory. We are what we are because of the creations … of our ancestors.”

For Armenians in occupied Artsakh and beyond, both the creations of their ancestors and the status of our ancestral land have been rendered chillingly precarious. 

“Culture is our passport,” Narine Khachaturyan observes. “It’s the trace that attests to our being native to Artsakh, Indigenous to Artsakh. That is why it’s so important to Azerbaijan to destroy it.”

What happens when a museum designed to decolonize history is colonized again? Whose histories will it enshrine, and what are the futures to which they may lead?

by Mashinka Firunts Hakopian Hyperallergic

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