Museums Spice Up Neighborhoods, Share Impact of Foreign Cultures

By Kara Spak, December 29, 2011

When the National Hellenic Museum opened its new 40,000-square-foot space in December, it brought the local ethnic museum into the spotlight.

A throwback to the days when immigrants from a particular country staked their claims in growing Chicago neighborhoods, the city is still home to dozens of similar, small museums featuring the stories of foreign cultures’ local impact.

“Many of them have grown out of social service agencies,” said Rebeccah Sanders, executive director of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, a group that works with more than two dozen local ethnic museums. “As immigrants come to us, they are becoming integrated, but they also want to remember the pieces of home.” Open to all from whatever background, the museums first started working with each other through a Field Museum program in 1998. That program evolved into the Chicago Cultural Alliance.

Sanders said the holidays are a great time to check out one of these organizations, though visitors should call in advance, because some are open by appointment only.

“Most of our core members have different holiday exhibits or holiday activities,” she said. The museums “really are like touchstones of ethnic identity of their communities. In many ways, they are the heart of that community.”

Here is a sampling of what some of the museums have to offer:

Scottish American Museum, 2800 Des Plaines Ave., North Riverside;

Don’t miss: Old Bailey, a ram’s head with bejeweled horns that is the “lucky mascot” of the Scottish community in Chicago, said Gus Noble, president of Chicago Scots. The ram’s head is a “snuff mull,” where a pouch of snuff is kept in the back of the ram’s head. Old Bailey survived the Great Chicago Fire to make it to the first Feast of the Haggis, which continues to be an annual event every November.

Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski;

Founded in 1966 by Stanley Balzekas Jr., owner of Balzekas Motor Sales in the Brighton Park neighborhood, permanent exhibits include a replica of a Lithuanian farmhouse, traditional costumes and a map collection explaining Lithuania’s history.

Don’t miss: Temporary exhibit “Hope & Spirit,” a look at the 70th anniversary of the Soviet deportation of 132,000 Lithuanians to Siberia between 1940 and 1953.

Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, 2831 W. Lawrence;

Don’t miss: The “Remembering the Killing Fields” exhibit, which weaves stories of six local immigrants who survived the Khymer Rouge with artifacts from this bleak period in Cambodian history. The exhibit ends at the permanent Killing Fields Memorial, a tribute to the 2 million people who died in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago, 2249 W. Superior;

Don’t miss: The permanent collection of more than 400 pysanky, or Ukrainian Easter eggs. One painted egg is more than 100 years old.

Fun fact: The pysanky once were believed to be magical, protecting from fire, thunder and evil.

Chinese-American Museum of Chicago — Raymond B. and Jean T. Lee Center, 238 W. 23rd St.;

Opened in 2005, 90 percent of the museum’s collection was destroyed in a 2008 fire. Intrepid supporters stepped up to rebuild.

Don’t miss: The Chinatown Centennial exhibition, which will run through 2012, and the Chinese New Year parade Jan. 29.

Fun fact: Visitors flock to a brick from the Great Wall, a gift from the Chinese government to the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark;

Don’t miss: The Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration, an age appropriate look at immigration within the Swedish American Museum. Kids learn about life in a centuries-old stuga, or Swedish farmhouse.

Fun fact: There are extended holiday hours for those looking for a place to take the kids over break.

Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 West Division;

Housed in the Humboldt Park Stables and Receptory, the institute claims to be the only year-round, self-standing cultural institution in the United States dedicated to Puerto Rican arts and history.

Don’t miss: The many musical performances held in the space.

Indo-American Heritage Museum, 6328 N. California;

Don’t miss: Customized tours of Devon Avenue, like a scavenger hunt for kids or a shopping excursion for adults.

Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox;

The center, which hosts about 100 events, is also home to a small museum and art galleries.

Don’t miss: The collection of 500 pieces of Belleek China in the museum, believed to be one of the largest collections in North America.

Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee;

Established more than 75 years ago, the Polish Museum of America features an array of Polish art and artifacts, from traditional paper cutting art to Polish military uniforms.

Fun fact: Learn about Casimir Pulaski in an exhibit on famous Poles.

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