National Hellenic Museum’s journey home

By Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune, January 17, 2012 

The National Hellenic Museum’s journey to its new, modernist building on a prominent Greektown corner was long and difficult. There were many obstacles on the way.

The trip was, you might say, an odyssey.

To get to the corner of Halsted and Van Buren streets, the institution didn’t have to battle Scylla or ignore the Sirens, as the hero of Homer’s “Odyssey” did, but it did have to fundraise its way out of its most recent home, the fourth floor of the office building above the Greek Islands restaurant, just up Halsted.

Nor did it not have to compete in a pentathlon like Odysseus, but it did have to win city permits for a 40,000-square-foot building and plan the exhibitions inside, creating a splendid new addition to the city’s museum landscape that will be unveiled to the public on Saturday.

And although the staff does not roam around talking in the dactylic hexameter in which Homer composed “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” the museum’s first-floor exhibition space includes such “Odyssey” elements as a climb-aboard Trojan Horse and a bellowing Cyclops, part of the “Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece” exhibition that’ll be there through next summer.

To the 10-person staff, who’ve been in the building since September, the place is starting to feel like home.

“We’ve found our Ithaca, so to speak,” Stephanie Vlahakis, the museum’s executive director, says, making reference to the island home Odysseus had to work so hard to return to. “What’s been wonderful is just being part of the neighborhood, being part of the street level and having people peer inside.”

The idea of the museum having undertaken an odyssey is thematically perfect, because the Hellenic Museum concerns itself with the Greek homeland — and its formative influence on Western culture — and with Greek people looking to make their own homes here.

“The story we tell is very much the immigrant story and the individual story in search of opportunity, in search of home,” Vlahakis says. “The title of the core visitor experience at the museum is ‘In Search of Home: The Greek Journey from Myth to Modern Day.’”

The building, designed by Demetrios Stavrianos, a principal in the Chicago office of the RTKL firm, includes a prominent staircase running from east to west and incorporates the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Since a literal version of fire would not be so good for the museum environment, there is, instead, a pretty convincing fake fireplace in the museum’s first-floor entry hall.

“They also wanted a running water feature,” says Bethany Fleming, the museum’s curator. “No, not so good for a museum with artifacts and books.” The solution: floor tiles that shimmer a little like water.

The “Gods, Myths and Mortals” exhibit, developed by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, tells the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” stories in a kid-friendly, hands-on fashion. It should be able to leverage the Greek mythology renaissance among young people that includes recastings of the stories in, for instance, the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” book series (and film).

Meanwhile, the museum’s core experience, drawing from its own collection and occupying much of the second floor, is not expected to be ready until late next year. But in its place, the museum has done a wonderfully innovative thing. Visitors will see an exhibition about the exhibition, complete with designers’ drawings and notes from the curator scrawled in marker.

“How about a cast of a Greek cliff?” reads one such note. Another display shows the evolution of the logo for the exhibition, from one featuring intricate mosaics to what it ended up as, an image featuring a ship. Elsewhere, there’s a sample of fixtures from a turn-of-the-century Berwyn candy shop, the type of place where Greek immigrants to Chicago entered the workforce in an astonishingly high proportion.

It all plays out on a concrete floor, in space designed to look like the work in progress that it is. While it may not be the detailed story of Greek culture and immigrant life the second floor hopes eventually to tell, it is compelling in its own way, a look behind the curtains to show how museum exhibits come together.

“We wanted to bring the visitor into our journey of building the exhibit and the museum,” says Fleming.

The goal is to be interactive and participatory, Fleming adds. “We are not the Art Institute or the British Museum.”

The National Hellenic Museum — “Hellas,” of course, being the word for Greece — also wants to be a big part of the neighborhood, befitting its roots as a cultural center. It hopes to boost its attendance from 10,000 annual visitors (in the fourth-floor space) to 50,000 or even 100,000 in the next year.

The building has the almost mandatory attractive multifunction rooms that can be rented out for events, plus a literal topper: a top-floor patio with a spectacular perspective on the city. Because the museum is hard by the intersection of the Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways, the view across the roadways to the Loop and Willis Tower is unimpeded.

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