National Center of Armenian Memory in Décines, France Promotes Armenian Studies and Culture

Aram Arkun
One of the largest centers of Armenian population in France is in Décines, a suburb of Lyon in the Rhônes-Alpes region. Here along with other Armenian institutions, all located on the same Rue de 24 avril 1915 (“April 24, 1915 Street,” a street name symbolically given on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1965), is the new Centre National de la Mémoire Arménienne, or National Center of Armenian Memory (CNMA, www.cnma.fr).
The goal of CNMA, according to its brochure, is “to restore to the populations of Armenian origin in France and Europe their capacity of cultural transmission, encumbered by systematic destruction and their deterritorialization of one hundred years ago.” Its target audience includes French Armenians, researchers, students, and any person interested in history and culture.
The CNMA opened on October 20, 2013 with both the French Minister of Culture and Communication and the Armenian Minister of the Diaspora present, along with various local politicians and the Armenian ambassador to France. Its unique architectural plan won the Prize of Honor of the GPAU Rhône for 2013. The CNMA was conceived in 2006 by the staff of the Maison de la Culture Arménienne (House of Armenian Culture, MCA] of Décines.
According to the CNMA website, leaders of the Armenian community were “desiring to inscribe their history in that of the French republic.” This approach of presenting Armenian history in the context of French values and history, is stressed in the website, which goes on to declare (in French) that “beyond the universal values of the French Republic,” allowing French Armenians to know their history, including the reason for the exodus of their ancestors and their manner of integration into French society, “helps to live a double culture serenely.”
This dual approach is no doubt solidified by the dual source of funding, approximately half from Armenian donations and loans, and half from French regional, provincial and municipal state bodies.
Though a new institution, the origins of the CNMA are intimately connected to several earlier organizations, beginning with the Maison du peuple Arménien [House of the Armenian People], built in 1932 primarily through the efforts of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, including some leaders of the first Republic of Armenia like Arshag Jamalian, and affiliated circles. This rallying ground for Armenians was revitalized in 1977 and renamed the MCA, as part of a movement to give greater vitality to Armenian culture and the Armenian cause in France. There are MCA’s in other cities of France.
The MCA of Décines in 1980 in turn created the Centre d’études, de documentation et d’informations arméniennes (CEDIA), with a library of over 6,000 works and 30,000 microfiches, as well as photographic and video documentation. Its goal was the preservation and transmission of Armenian culture through its library and various activities.
In 2006, the MCA decided to take its activities onto a higher level, more academic and organized, and intended for a broader audience, so it adopted the CNMA project. It decided to buy the necessary real estate for this. In 2011 the work of constructing the building began.
Today the CNMA has two fulltime staff members, Daniel Meguerditchian, the cultural coordinator, and Marie Picot, who is responsible for the documentary materials.
Meguerditchian stated that his academic background is in ancient Armenian history. He has in particular done research on Roman Armenia, including the period of Lucullus and Hadrian. He has a postgraduate Diplôme d’étude approfondies (something akin to the all-but-dissertation stage in US academia) from the University of Lyon III in ancient history. However, in part through his job, he also has developed an expertise in 19th century Armenian nationalism, the Armenian massacres and genocide, and the story of Armenian refugees in France. In the earlier part of his education, he obtained a master’s degree from the University of Paris I, where he studied political science. He said that this helps greatly in his present work.
Meguerditchian runs the cultural and pedagogical elements of the CNMA, and lectures on Armenian issues as well as being responsible for the personnel of the institution and its outreach efforts through the Internet and social media. He was involved in the original organization of the center, and earlier, as secretary of the Conseil de coordination des organisations arméniennes de France [Council of Coordination of Armenian Organizations] of the Rhône-Alpes region, worked toward the creation of the Armenian Genocide monument in the center of the city of Lyon (2006).
CNMA’s first goal is to document and preserve Armenian memory and heritage in the diaspora. For this purpose, it has a multilingual collection of books, audiovisual media, photographs, historical documents. It includes a lending library of over 6,000 books for adults, 220 for children, and many DVDs as well as periodicals. Its non-lending archives include 10,000 documents, maps and books, as well as 1,000 audiovisual items and several thousand photographs. It has been digitally scanning its works to make them available through OpenSource, and its resources are listed through the French University System of Documentation (Système Universitaire de Documentation française—SUDOC), and since 2016 CNMA has been supported by the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research through Collex (“Collections of Excellence”). Its bibliographical work contributes not only to French libraries but also those of Armenia.
Secondly, it is involved in teaching to transmit memory. CNMA approximately one year ago entered into a partnership with the Catholic University of Lyon in order to prepare jurists and others working for the defense of human rights. This program requires many different intellectual disciplines. The university students visit the CNMA, and sometimes there are interships on Armenian history and its connection with human rights history. In addition, students in library sciences come to the CNMA. The university has a chair of Armenology, which is in the theology division, run by Maxime Yevadian (http://sourcesdarmenie.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=37).
Efforts are underway to develop a partnership with the University of Lyon.
In addition, primarily for secondary school students, who must study the Armenian Genocide as part of their curriculum, as well as for university students, CNMA offers two types of educational workshops. The first one is called “the act of genocide, through the case of the genocide of the Armenians,” and uses the point of view of a civilian population in total war to examine the Armenian Genocide comparative to other genocides. It is given at CNMA or can also be organized outside in other institutions. The second workshop is called the “citizen trajectory,” and includes a visit with commentary to the Armenian quarter of Décines, to study how foreign refugees like the Armenians could through several generations become fully integrated French citizens. It examines questions of multiple identities and conflicts in daily life. Over 2,000 students have taken these workshops since 2013. Groups of interested adults can also be accommodated in workshops.
Thirdly, it organizes expositions and outreach activities throughout the year to make the memory and heritage living. It collaborates with local organizations and large French national institutions. Among the large exhibitions it has put together are “The Armenian Book from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: A Culture in Diaspora” with the Bibliothèque Mazarine in 2013, “The Century of Genocides” with the Shoah Memorial of Paris in 2014, and “The Genocide of the Armenians: Stigmatize, Destroy, Exclude,” again with the Shoah Memorial, in 2016. It also participates in conferences and events organized on various universal questions such as human rights and oppression.
While all this is academic work or its popularization, Meguerditchian explained that it also may have an indirect political influence, as a type of “soft power” of the Armenian community.
After discussing the difficulties of life in the diaspora, Meguerditchian said, “I think that it is truly a question of general interest for the Armenians throughout the diaspora to force themselves to get out of their narrow Byzantine circles in order to concentrate on what is important.” The collective experience of the Armenians in diaspora in the period of modernity, he continued, contains both unique elements as well as universal ones, and studying it can be fruitful for both Armenians and for humanity. Consequently, it must be disseminated broadly. At the same time, the Armenians themselves no matter which country they live in would benefit by being aware of their history.
Aside from lectures and local events, the CNMA has supported from 2014 a theater company in residence called la Compagnie de creation théâtrale Saté-Âtre, which uses both the French and Armenian languages.
The CNMA building serves as a center for other Armenian organizations besides the CNMA and the theatrical company. The MCA runs a weekly Armenian school there, and provides French language classes for new immigrants, as well as courses in music, dance, art, and cultural activities. Finally, a restaurant called ARA (Association Restauration Arménien) operates on the ground floor of the CNMA building, and its revenues support the activities of the CNMA.

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