The Singaporean behind Asia’s first Armenian Heritage Gallery
Singaporean Sandra Basmadjian was born right around the corner from the Armenian Church on Armenian Street. It was a complete coincidence that she would one day play a pivotal role in the church’s heritage efforts.
While working in the finance sector, Sandra met her husband, Mr Basmadjian, an Armenian banker, who sparked her interest in Armenian culture.
In 1985, Mr Basmadjian attended the Armenian Church’s 150th anniversary celebration where he was gifted a commemorative Armenian coin that was consecrated in the Church in 1835.
The artefact piqued his interest in his own heritage and spurred him on a quest to discover its secrets.
While researching into his predecessors, Mr Basmadjian discovered the impact they’d left on Singapore’s history. Among the Armenian pioneers who had landed on our shores were the Sarkies brothers who founded Raffles Hotel in 1887 and Catchick Moses who started The Straits Times in 1845.
Intrigued by his discoveries, Mr Basmadjian began a fevered search to connect with other Armenians in Singapore in a bid to preserve their shared culture and heritage.
“He was instrumental in setting up the community in 2001. He even used to sit on a chair outside the church and approach anyone that looked remotely Armenian,” recalled Sandra jovially.
To further his search, Mr Basmadjian also enlisted the help of the Armenian communities around the Asia Pacific region. Together, they managed to officially document the number of known Armenians in Singapore.
Documenting the number of Armenians in Singapore across the years. Image Source: Bras Basah.Bugis
Mr Basmadjian, who was an active contributor in the new-founded Armenian community since 2002, later became chairman of the Armenian Church (Singapore) board of trustees.
The idea of establishing Asia’s first Armenian Heritage Gallery came up in 2005 when Mr Basmadjian and the other trustees started receiving gifts and artefacts from Armenians visiting Singapore.
“Before the gallery opened, we used to have Armenians from all over the world dropping off cultural items and rare artefacts, and we didn’t know what to do with them,” said Sandra.
Artefacts such as an old offering bag, preserved scriptures and other ancient literary items are among the items that were casually handed to the trustees before the gallery was established.
Sadly, Mr Basmadjian passed away in 2015 before its completion.
“One of his biggest fears was that the gallery would never come to fruition,” said Sandra.
But with the help of the National Heritage Board, as well as the local and international Armenian communities, Sandra succeeded in keeping her husband’s dreams alive.
Housed in Armenian Church’s former parsonage building, the Armenian Heritage Gallery finally opened its doors in June 2018. The first of its kind in Asia, the gallery celebrates Armenia’s rich history and culture, and aims to raise awareness of this lesser-known community in Singapore.
Continuing the work of her husband, Sandra now volunteers at the gallery as a guide in her spare moments.
Wall of Contributions. Image Source: Bras Basah.Bugis
Among some of her favourite exhibits is the Wall of Contributions, which provides a detailed list with pictorial references of famous Armenians and their impact on their country or industry.
These include pioneers in a variety of industries such as plastic surgery, computing, physics, and the arts. You might even recognise famous names like pop culture icon Cher and former world No. 1 tennis player Andre Agassi.
Map showing the Armenian diaspora. Image Source: Bras Basah.Bugis
Another of Sandra’s favourites is a map tracking the Armenians’ diaspora in Asia, from Indonesia all the way to New Delhi and Chennai.
She explained that despite the nomadic nature of the Armenians, they’ve managed to maintain a strong sense of cultural identity.
“Family is extremely important to the Armenians. They’ve built communities and churches wherever they went, as a way to protect their heritage, while continuing to not only integrate but also thrive and contribute to any society they reside in,” added Sandra.
The Armenian Heritage Gallery is filled with interactive exhibits and other interesting artefacts, brought to life courtesy of knowledgeable guides like Sandra and her colleagues.
The gallery’s community centre is still under construction, but the main area is open for private viewings on Wednesdays and Sundays.
For more information and to book a private tour, email: firstname.lastname@example.org