It’s All Greek to Us: Greek Culture Finally Gets Its Due

By Stephanie Vlahakis
President, National Hellenic Museum
January 3, 2012

Greece is in the world spotlight now… but for all the wrong reasons.

With the current Greek fiscal crisis seemingly plastered to the headlines, Greeks are quickly becoming a punchline. But Greek culture has a depth beyond the news cycle. In fact, Greeks are one of the most impactful cultures on the planet. Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the obvious — food.

Everyone loves Greek delicacies — from classics like baklava to the newest craze, Greek yogurt. The foodies just discovered it though we’ve been enjoying it for generations.

But beyond food, Greek history and culture is at the very foundation of Western civilization and continues to influence our lives to this day. A few examples:

There’s a reason the buildings in Washington, D.C., have Greek columns. Democracy’s roots trace back to Ancient Greece. The word itself comes from two Greek words: demos, “the people,” and kratein, “to rule.” As Hellenic culture flourished, expertly engineered temples reinforced the powerful ideals of democracy.

Homer launched the art of Western storytelling with The Odyssey and The Iliad — masterpieces that still inspire our world today. Hollywood and the publishing industry — you’re welcome.

Greeks were also the original intellectuals. Take Aristotle, one of the defining figures in Western philosophy, who wrote about everything from physics to theater to biology.

But that’s all in the past. Headlines keep telling me how lazy Greeks are today, right? Wrong again.

Greek Americans have gone on to become some of America’s hardest working citizens. Upon arrival they brought few material resources but generations of customs, traditions and the same work ethic and intellect that built monuments and launched civilization when the rest of the world was stuck in the Stone Age. Today they are some of the most successful Americans and continue to advance their culture. In fact, the gyro was invented right here in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood.

Of course the best part about Greek contributions is that we don’t keep them to ourselves — we share them with the world. Greek or not, we all share the legacy of Ancient Greece and the Greek American experience. That’s why we like to say, “Everybody’s Greek!” Everyone is a part of this story, which is why we created the all-new National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

The Museum’s mission is to preserve and explore Hellenism and to chronicle the Greek American journey through exhibitions, oral histories, archival collections and education programs. Our purpose is to inspire in people of all backgrounds a curiosity for their own story through a greater connection to Greek history, culture and the arts.

These connections occur at all age levels. Children love our family-friendly interactive exhibit, “Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece.” Guests can meet famous Greek gods, experience ancient daily life and enjoy hands-on experiences including climbing inside a 13-foot Trojan Horse, playing a game of “20 Questions” with Aristotle and even becoming an architect and building their own Greek temple.

We are also preserving memories from Greek Americans. “HOMER: The Oral History Project” celebrates the great Greek tradition of storytelling through an interactive, multimedia repository of interviews and recordings of Greek American histories. These stories of faith, fate, determination and dreams come alive and resonate with people of all backgrounds. As visitors listen and watch, they hear echoes of their own story.

The new National Hellenic Museum aims to celebrate Greek culture. We invite everyone to discover the roles Greek culture plays in society today. Just like the new museum, Greek contributions to society are relevant, inspiring and essential for all of us to find our place in the world. So the next time you read about Greeks, remember that you’re one of us too, and we’re all in this together.

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