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Armenian Orphan Rug, steeped in controversy, may go on display

WASHINGTON — A rug woven by orphans of the Armenian genocide — and the subject of modern-day political controversy — may be put on display after years in White House storage.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said the White House has committed to exhibit the rug at a yet-to-be-determined event.

“They finally have made the commitment,” he said in an interview. “And we’re looking forward to its display.”

But Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he will believe it when he sees the rug.

“The White House has been sending out false signals about a future showing ever since the controversy surrounding its cancellation of last December’s Smithsonian exhibit, so we remain, quite naturally, reserved in welcoming progress until we have actually seen this artwork allowed on public display,” he said.

A White House decision last year to cancel a Smithsonian display of the rug caused a furor, with Hamparian at the time accusing the administration of “catering to the Turkish government’s sensitivities about the Armenian genocide.” A number of lawmakers, including some from California with large Armenian American constituencies, also were upset.

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks as the empire was dissolving during World War I, an episode historians have concluded was genocide. But Turkey has contended that Turks and Armenians were casualties of war, famine and disease.

The roughly 12-by-18-foot Armenian Orphan Rug was to be featured in an exhibit to call attention to a new book about the rug.

But the White House said the rug’s display “in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property, would have required the White House to undertake the risk of transporting the rug for limited public exposure and was not viewed as commensurate with the rug’s historical significance.”

Woven by orphans of the mass killings nearly a century ago, the rug was presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 in appreciation for American aid.

It was brought out of storage in 1995 for viewing by one of its aging weavers, according to the Armenian National Committee of America, but it has not been on put on broader public display for decades.

At the White House, National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in an email Tuesday: “We’ve been working with Congressman Schiff on this issue for several months and appreciate his working with us to showcase this important artifact in a way that appropriately highlights the spirit in which it was given to the White House for U.S. involvement in assisting Armenian refugees.”

Schiff said he hopes to see the rug on public display as early as this fall.

Earlier this year, Schiff sought the rug for an “educational” event on Capitol Hill, but the congressman’s office said it never received a response from the White House, and the event ultimately was canceled because of a snowstorm.

Resolutions have been introduced in Congress over the years to recognize the mass killings between 1915 and 1918 as genocide. But the measures have run into resistance amid fears they would damage U.S. relations with Turkey, an important ally.
 

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