The White House has confirmed that a controversial historical artifact known as the Armenian Orphan Rug will go on display at the newly renovated White House Visitor Center next month. The rug, woven by Armenian orphans in the 1920s and presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925, was a gift thanking the United States for its role in assisting Armenians after the mass killings and genocidal relocations at the hands of the crumbling Ottoman Empire a century ago.
The rug had been scheduled to be displayed at a Smithsonian Institution event in December, but that was canceled suddenly after the White House, without explanation, declined to release the carpet. At the time, Armenian American groups speculated that the Turkish government, which has long resisted acknowledging the events of 1915 as a genocide, was behind the White House’s refusal.
In April, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said the White House had agreed to allow the rug to be seen, but the White House didn’t offer specific details about where or when. With tensions rising between the United States and Turkey over how best to handle the crisis in Syria, the decision today still came as a surprise. The U.S. government has been pressuring Turkey to assist Kurdish forces in their fight against the Islamic State, while Turkey has tied its participation in stepped-up action against the extremist group to a firmer U.S. resolve to remove Turkey’s longtime foe, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from office.
A senior administration official said the timing of the announcement was unrelated to current events and that the decision was made months earlier. At issue was where and how to display the object, and there was concern about the proper care of the valuable carpet. The colorful textile is approximately 12 by 18 feet, with more than 4 million knots. It took some 10 months for the orphans, under the protection of the Near East Relief Society, to make it.
The carpet, originally scheduled to be seen as part of a reception and book launch last year, will now be displayed as one of three key objects in an exhibition devoted to gifts thanking the United States for humanitarian assistance. Included in the display will be a 1930 French vase given to President Herbert Hoover and a work known as Flowering Branches in Lucite, a gift of the Japanese government after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
The new exhibition will somewhat blunt the explosive symbolic power of the rug’s display by contextualizing it with other objects in a show titled “Thank You to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad.”
But Armenian groups will be watching how the rug is displayed and what action the United States takes in the coming year, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Of particular concern is a public acknowledgment by the United States that the killing and starvation of the Armenians, which caused an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million deaths, was technically genocide. Although then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would support such a position, Armenian groups have criticized him for not explicitly using the word “genocide” to refer to those events. That dissonance has been particularly pronounced since last June, when Obama nominated Samantha Power to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Power, author of the well-regarded 2002 book “A Problem From Hell,” used the term throughout her history of genocide to refer to the treatment of the Armenians.
Although grateful that the rug will now be seen, Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, is concerned that this may be a symbolic gesture meant to appease the Armenian American community and that 2015 will pass without the president allowing the U.S. government to formally acknowledge the genocide.
“We hope the display of this rug will mark real progress, not a substitute for progress,” Hamparian said.
He is also concerned about how the rug will be explained in the exhibition, and whether information accompanying it will forthrightly use the word genocide. If the display doesn’t speak directly about the events, he says, the rug’s appearance for the first time since 1995 may yet leave a sour taste among many Armenian Americans.
“I would go see it, but it would pain my heart if it was shown in the context of euphemisms and evasive language,” Hamparian said.
The rug will be on display Nov. 18-23.