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  • Writer's pictureTrevor

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

Today marks the anniversary of the Republic of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and I’m reflecting on my trip there almost six years ago.

In October 2012, I participated in a U.S. Embassy speaker tour as a researcher in the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology. My colleagues and I met with museum professionals in Yerevan, Vanadzor, and Gyumri, exchanging experiences about the challenges museums face today. Beyond these exchanges, I learned about a country I previously knew little about.

Atop a hill overlooking Lake Sevan

Armenia is famously regarded as the first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion. A respect for history clearly permeates the culture, perhaps most visibly at the Matenadaran, the massive archive of ancient manuscripts in the city center. However, modern trends are equally apparent in the capital of Yerevan. One night, we took in a show at the local black box theater. Another day we visited the Cafesjian Museum of Arts, one of the most captivating contemporary art museums I’ve ever been to, itself a work of art.

What I’ll remember most from my trip though is the people we met. Everyone we encountered was so profoundly hospitable and excited to share their country and culture with us. We were humbled every day by their generosity. A few months after the trip, one of our friends from the embassy was in Washington, D.C. for training. She remembered it was my birthday and surprised me with a bottle of Armenian cognac, the finest in the world. It was the most Armenian gesture I could imagine.

Trevor Merrion with colleagues Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth and Tatevik Ordinyan at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, believed by some scholars to be the oldest cathedral in the world.

To celebrate Armenia’s independence day, I’ve been digging through U.S. national collections to see what Armenian treasures lie in store.

There are these beautiful, medieval manuscripts in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a small taste of what lies in the vaults of the Matenadaran.

In the Cooper-Hewitt collection, this remarkable silk textile from 1809, featuring a gold embroidery of the crucifixion and inscriptions in Armenian.

Also check out these amazing, kinetic sketches in pencil and crayon by Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), part of the Hirshhorn collection.



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  • Writer's pictureTrevor

Updated: Aug 20, 2018

This week two hundred years ago, a nobleman in the court of Siam wrote a letter to President James Monroe, what is today considered the first official contact between the government of the United States and the Kingdom of Thailand. It was this letter that inspired the Embassy of the United States in Bangkok to organize the “Great and Good Friends” exhibition, which in turn, inspired the creation of our curatorial partnership, Merrion & Smith. To pay tribute to this connection, the story of this historic letter will be the inaugural post in our new blog, which we will be using to chronicle our explorations in museums and collections throughout the world.

The 1818 Letter from Thailand's Dit Bunnag to President James Monroe. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, Papers of James Monroe, Collection Doc No. 4784-4785

In the summer of 1818, an American captain named Stephen Williams arrived in Bangkok looking to trade for sugar, then one of the most coveted commodities in the world. The captain met with Prince Chetsadabodin (soon to be King Rama III), who graciously provided Williams with the goods he sought. The first official correspondence between the Kingdom of Thailand to the United States describes the details of this meeting. What Williams provided the kingdom in exchange for Thai sugar is unclear, but the letter concludes with an entreaty that any Americans returning to Bangkok bring muskets.

Beyond its significance to U.S.-Thai history, this letter contains many details that illuminate early nineteenth century Thailand. The letter concludes with a request for American traders to bring firearms to Bangkok because, at the time, European powers were busy colonizing kingdoms throughout Asia. This request underscores the Thai court’s awareness of the need for Western weapons to defend the kingdom against this threat. It would be through a century of savvy diplomacy, illustrated in moments like this 1818 letter, that the Kingdom of Thailand would become the only Southeast Asian power to never be colonized.

It is also remarkable to see that this letter was written by the nobleman Dit Bunnag, one of the most prominent figures in Thailand’s history. In nineteenth century Siam, absolute power was vested in the monarchy, while the kingdom was run by a collective of ministers who controlled different aspects of the government. The kalahom, who oversaw defense, and the phraklang, who managed foreign affairs and finance, were the two most powerful ministers in the kingdom. For two decades, Dit Bunnag was both. His stature in Thai history is comparable to figures like Cardinal Richelieu or Alexander Hamilton, politicians who had vast influence, but always in the shadows of the seat of power. In the 1818 letter, however, we see Dit Bunnag, writing with the title Phraya Suriyawong, more in the role of a prince’s orderly, still on his way to the highest echelons of power.

In the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, viewing the 1818 letter from Dit Bunnag that is part of the Papers of President James Monroe.
Ambassador Glyn T. Davies views the 1818 letter with Julie Miller, Historian at the Library of Congress

For many years, this letter hid in obscurity within the collected papers of President James Monroe at the Library of Congress. A 2014 Didier Millet publication, Americans in Thailand, rescued this historical document from oblivion and put in motion the 2018 celebrations that Merrion & Smith were so fortunate to be a part of. From the beginning of the “Great and Good Friends” project, we knew we wanted the original 1818 letter to be displayed in Bangkok. One complication was that the letter, having been archived over a century ago, was adhered into a bound ledger. Conservators at the Library of Congress were able to carefully remove this letter from its adhesive binding, allowing it to be displayed publicly for the first time ever. Now removed from its adhesive binding, the letter will also be better preserved into the future, ready for the next major exhibition to honor the history shared by our two nations for so many years.

To learn why this letter is in Portuguese, and more about what makes Thailand and the United States “Great and Good Friends,” visit the Google Arts & Culture virtual exhibition.

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