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Margaret C. Tellalian Kyrkostas, anthropologist, dies at 90

Margaret C. Tellalian Kyrkostas co-founded the Anthropology Museum

Margaret C. Tellalian Kyrkostas co-founded the Anthropology Museum of the People of New York at Queens College. Credit: Kyrkostas Family

Margaret C. Tellalian Kyrkostas — an anthropologist and curator who won a fight with the museum on Ellis Island to keep photos in an exhibition depicting the Ottoman Turks' Armenian massacre a century ago — has died.

She was 90.

Kyrkostas died Saturday at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset; the cause was complications from bladder cancer, according to her granddaughter Samantha Kyrkostas.

The longtime executive director of Queens College's Anthropology Museum of the People of New York, which she founded with the help of Margaret Mead, Kyrkostas made headlines in 1997 when management of the Ellis Island immigration museum told Kyrkostas that more than a dozen photographs of massacre that she had helped choose were too gruesome and inappropriate for children, according to The New York Times; she in turn accused the museum of whitewashing history.

After about a month, Kyrkostas and the museum compromised: three of the 15 controversial photographs were allowed to be displayed — one showing the hanging of Armenians; an injured child on a stretcher and a document that according to the curators showed the Turks decreeing the killing of Armenians, according to The Times.

"I'm happy that it went back up so the story could be told the way it should be told," she said at the time.

At her Anthropology Museum of the People of New York, she helped establish one of first exhibitions in the city on Armenians.

“There is more to Armenians than the genocide," she told Newsday in 2003 of the approximately 1.5 million people who were killed by the Turkish-Ottoman government starting in 1915. The Turkish government has long acknowledged atrocities were committed but said people died during wartime and there was no organized attempt to wipe out Armenians.

She wrote the book "Armenia: Memories From My Home," as a companion to the exhibition. 

Margaret Clencon Tellalian Kyrkostas was born June 14, 1929 at St. John’s hospital in Long Island City, Queens, to Garabed Tellalian, an oriental-rug repairman, and Haiganoush (Yemenedjian) Tellalian, a homemaker, both of Armenian ancestry, according to the granddaughter.

The couple, fleeing separately during the massacre of Armenians, had immigrated to the United States shortly after World War I.

Margaret, who went by Marge, was raised by her parents with the help of her maternal grandmother.

She had early jobs at the New York Public Library at the front desk and as a copywriter for a news wire service.

In 1948, she married Theodore W. Kyrkostas Sr. After 63 years of marriage, he died in 2011 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

She is survived by her elder child, Theo W. Kyrkostas Jr., of Sea Cliff and Peggy O'Hanlon, their younger child of Port Washington; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Her middle child, composer and pianist Mark Kyrkostas, died in 1990, of complications related to AIDS.

The funeral is Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the Armenian Church of Holy Martyrs in Queens, with burial to follow at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing. 

Stan Meltzer, her teacher when she pursued her undergraduate degree as an adult at Queens College, said the two stayed in touch for decades after.

Sometimes their conversations would cover a paper she was planning to write, or a talk she’d be giving, he said.

“She might just want to run some of the stuff past me,” he said.

Clifford Jolly, one of her teachers at New York University, recalled meeting her at school, and later becoming closer after Kyrkostas earned her master’s degree.

Jolly and his wife would attend dinner parties at her home and Kyrkostas would practice tasseography, the art of fortune telling using coffee grounds.

“Marge’s major parlor trick was to read the coffee grounds, which I think is something that’s done in Greek or Armenian culture,” he said.

Jolly, now professor emeritus of anthropology, said he gave her advice on setting up the Queens museum, including sources of potential grants and donors, adding: “Not that Marge needed much advice on the museum."

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