The Museum debuts with God, Myths and Mortals

Staff Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times

Here’s a hint if you are trapped in a cave with a Cyclops, whose booming voice warns you in no uncertain terms, “There is no escape!”

Make like Odysseus and get under the sheep.

The three sheep and the Cyclops are part of “Gods, Myths and Mortals,” opening Dec. 10 at the new National Hellenic Museum, 333 S. Halsted.

English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once famously said “We are all Greeks.” Stephanie Vlahakis, the museum’s executive director, says that sentiment hasn’t lost its resonance, as musuem visitors will soon discover.

“Law, language, literature — it all had roots in ancient Greece,” she said. “These stories are stories we are all connected to. The world we live in today is rooted in ancient Greece.”

The museum spent more than two decades in three temporary Chicago homes before debuting in its new 40,000-square-foot space on Greektown’s edge, built to receive LEED Gold certification.

While the museum was initially founded to document and honor the Greek immigrant experience, the new, upgraded incarnation does that as well as pay homage to contributions from Greek culture, starting in antiquity.

And that’s just where “Gods, Myths and Mortals” begins.

“It’s inviting you to experience the daily life of ancient Greece — the myths, legends, general life, Greek language and how people lived,” said Bethany Fleming, the National Hellenic Museum’s director of museum experience and curator. “All are themed around following the journey of Odysseus and meeting things along the way.”

“Gods, Myths and Mortals” is geared toward elementary school-age children, Fleming said. Older children and adults will still find plenty to look at, including Greek artifacts such as an enormous, shallow bowl-shaped cup called a kylix, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania.

There also are plenty of hands-on items for young visitors who may be more familiar with Homer Simpson than Greek epic writer Homer. There are togas for kids to dress up in and computer screens that track their personal progress along Odysseus’ journey. A white-pillared “Temple of Zeus” introduces major figures in Greek mythology. A trip into the ancient Greek “oikos,” or home, lays out where children and their parents in ancient Greece would sleep. School is covered, too, though today’s schoolchildren will learn that the only kids in school in ancient Greece were the children of wealthy citizens.

Also in oikos, there’s a computer game that teaches the story of Arachne, the competitive mortal weaver turned into a spider. A loom modeled after ones found in ancient Greece allows children the opportunity to try their hand at Arachne’s craft. A “test your strength” interactive takes a safe look at the sport of Greek wrestling.

There’s also plenty of information about everyday life in ancient Greece and the story of the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem. Six computerized “Hero’s Stations” ask for your name and then follow your journey on the Odyssey’s route.

Children ages 6 and older can climb into the head of a 13-foot Trojan Horse after learning about the horse’s tricky role in the conquest of Troy. To escape the Cyclops’ cave, visitors need to climb under the sheep through one of two doors, just like Odysseus and his crew. Be warned — one door is a trap.

The Sirens get their own song in Sirens Karaoke. Odyssey-related words are sung into a microphone to the tunes of “We Will Rock You,” “We Are Family” or “(He) Will Survive.”

Children can navigate Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool, through a balancing game. Another station simulates the test Odysseus’ wife Penelope used to verify his identity after his long journey ended. All of Odysseus’ feats are connected through a colorful path leading through the exhibit.

Developed by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the exhibit spent five years in New York City before arriving in two semi trucks in Greektown on Nov. 23.

“The Trojan horse, the Cyclops cave and the path — the kids loved to follow the path,” said Thomas Quaranta, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s director of exhibitions and operations, on the exhibit’s most popular features.

Quaranta said ancient Greece was developed into a children’s exhibit in part because the broad topic was such a challenge.

“We had a choice of several topics and this was the most challenging,” he said. “And it says it on the front of the building — we are all Greeks.”

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