German photographer Ralph Baker pronounces the word “Matenadaran” almost flawlessly after several attempts. The Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts with a hard-to-pronounce name is one of Ralph’s dearest places in Yerevan. Ralph knows the employees of Matenadaran, literally, by face.
The German photographer first came to Armenia in 2008 at the initiative of the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) to document Gyumri, 20 years after the earthquake. He says he fell in love with Gyumri since that day and visits Armenia regularly. During one of his visits, he discovered Matenadaran. Then an opportunity was created to photograph and videotape the old Armenian manuscripts for one of the German television companies.
“Matenadaran is the repository of the most sacred heritage of Armenian culture. Today, Matenadaran is a temple of science, a place of worship for devotees of Armenian culture and also for foreigners who are interested in it.
Every year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to see, study and experience the unique presence of the manuscripts kept in Matenadaran. Here centuries-old knowledge is saved, restored and made available again, carefully preserved in the archives.”
After many visits, in 2021, Ralph Baker decided to make a photo story about Matenadaran. This time though, the focus was not on the manuscripts and ancient books, but on the people who take care and preserve them, whose important work is mostly left out of the public’s eye.
Ralph says that he first started taking photos of the female workers in the department of restoration. The more he photographed, the clearer the idea of his project became – to present the “guardians of age-old wisdom”.
“I referred to Matenadaran from this point of view, because, after all, people work here, they are the “doctors”, preservers, archivers, researchers of these books. Especially now we live in times when wisdom from the past is very important for the future. On the one hand, I aimed to present their efforts, the strength they invest in the preservation of manuscripts, on the other, I wanted to thank them through this photo story. All the people I met in Matenadaran are doing an important work, thanks to their dedication the ancient books have been saved and preserved, and the history and heritage transmitted through them.”
Ralph Baker documented the work of all departments for days, showing that Matenadaran is not just a museum, but an important scientific research center. The result was “House of Wisdom” exhibition, which opened in May 2022, as part of the “Night of Museums” events.
“Ralph himself proposed to hold an exhibition of portraits of Matenadaran employees. Since this year we decided to dedicate the Night of Museums to the Matenadaran building. Ralph’s proposal was in line with our concept: to present the building of Matenadaran as a monument and employees as living monuments.
We tried to display Matenadaran in its wholeness, including all sections without discrimination. Our exhibition included maintenance workers, cleaners, technical and restoration workers, security guards, managers, tour guides, scientists, the representatives of the manuscript library,” says Nazeni Gharibyan, head and senior researcher of the museum part of Matenadaran.
Photo exhibitions dedicated to manuscripts and monuments in Matenadaran were held before as well, but the people of Matenadaran were “exhibited” for the first time. The photographer says that the whole process of preparing the exhibition was like a journey. Photography, in general, for Ralph, is a collaboration between himself and the person he is photographing. He says that the photographer is responsible for preserving and treating the history entrusted to him with care.
“As a photographer, I am guided by the following principle: I see you, I understand you, I feel you. You are important to me. I preserve your history.”
Photography is a “magical” art. A photographer must create an image by capturing its essence through framing, composition and light. For me, a photo is created as a result of an invisible collaboration between the photographer and the subject. This, sometimes very short mutual acquaintance, gives the opportunity to present the reality through vivid images, which take the viewers to a world unknown to them before.”
The photo story dedicated to Matenadaran is just an episode in Ralph Baker’s big project about books, the knowledge transmitted through them for centuries, and the people who preserve this heritage. Ralph still has plans related to Armenia and Matenadaran. He says there is still a lot to tell. And before that, he reads Narekatsi’s poem “Matyan Voghbergyutan” (“Book of Lamentations”) in a German translation, which he discovered in Matenadaran during filming.