Renowned anthropologist Kyrkostas dies at 90

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Anthropologist Margaret "Marge" C. Tellalian-Kyrkostas, has died at 90. (Photo courtesy of the Kyrkostas family)

Margaret “Marge” C. Tellalian-Kyrkostas, an anthropologist, professor, museum curator and prominent figure in the Armenian-American community in the State of New York, has died. She was 90.

Tellalian-Kyrkostas died on Feb. 15 at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset due to complications from cancer, according to her family.

Born in 1929 to Garabed and Haiganoush Tellalian, both survivors of the Armenian genocide who fled Anatolia, Turkey for the United States, Tellalian-Kyrkostas and her brother were raised in Astoria, Queens, and she would live in the borough for the rest of her life.

After raising a family in Little Neck, at 43 Tellalian-Kyrkostas earned her undergraduate degree at Queens College, as well as a master’s degree in physical anthropology at New York University.  

Not long after graduating from NYU, Tellalian-Kyrkostas met anthropologist Margaret Mead. She told the Rev. Nareg Terterian in a 2015 interview that she discussed the idea of a museum with Mead before she died in 1978.

“I said to her, there are no ethnic museums. It’s all Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece – I said, we should have a museum that services contemporary ethnic groups in the city. And she said, ‘I’ll help you,’ and she did,” Tellalian-Kyrkostas said.

With Mead’s assistance, in 1977 Tellalian-Kyrkostas founded the nonprofit Anthropology Museum of the People of New York and Armenian Cultural Education Resource Center in 1979. She, along with staff from universities like Harvard and NYU, used offices in Queens College for meetings. Their first creation was a folding exhibit that they placed in hospitals, banks and libraries.

“We’d leave it there for a month to introduce people to anthropology,” Tellalian-Kyrkostas said.

Tellalian-Kyrkostas also gained attention after creating a display called “Armenia: Memories from My Home” for the Immigration Museum at Ellis Island in 1997. The display, which frankly discussed the 1915-17 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, was censored by the National Park Service after displaying “gory and gruesome” pictures of hanging bodies and soldiers holding decapitated heads. Tellalian-Kyrkostas later said that representatives from Turkey, which disputes that a systematic eradication took place, took offense to the words “massacre” and “genocide” being included in the exhibit.

The photos were reinstated when, according to Tellalian-Kyrkostas, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. came to her defense “like a charging knight,” and told the museum to open the exhibit.

In 2003, the museum received its current home at Queens College, with one section dedicated to anthropology and another dedicated to Armenian history, funded by money raised through the Armenian community in New York State. Tellalian-Kyrkostas was seen as one of the country’s foremost experts on early 20th century Armenia, writing an oral history on the subject for the Library of Congress.

She would also serve as a professor at Queens College for 15 years, and served as the museum’s executive director until her death.

Upon the death of her son Mark, a celebrated composer and pianist, from complications relating to AIDS in 1990, Tellalian-Kyrkostas championed his music, hosting yearly “Remember Me With Music” memorial concerts in his name.

Tellalian-Kyrkostas had a second career as an actress, starring in the short film “After Water, There is Sand,” which was shot in Armenia. Her family says she was in the process of writing both a screenplay, “Bad Good Men,” and a memoir at the time she died.

A funeral was held Wednesday at the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs in Flushing.

Kyrkostas is survived by two children: Theo W. Kyrkostas, Jr. (Ann) of Sea Cliff, and Peggy O’Hanlon (Liam) of Port Washington. She is also survived by four grandchildren: Samantha Mills (Billy) and Calvin Kyrkostas (Isabella Gambuto), Tim and Ani O’Hanlon; and one great-granddaughter, Nellie Day Mills. She was predeceased by her second son, Mark Kyrkostas, her brother, Jack Tellalian, and her husband, Ted Kyrkostas, Sr., who died in 2011.

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