‘We’re all Greek!’

By Helen Iatrou, Athens News, January 8, 2012

What does ancient storyteller Homer have in common with the tens of millions of people telling their day-to-day stories on Facebook? Who invented the Antikythira mechanism, believed to be the world’s oldest computer, thousands of years before the iPad?

These are some of the questions being dangled before visitors to the new National Hellenic Museum, which opened in the thick of Chicago’s Greektown on December 10. It is the first and only major museum in the US dedicated to exploring Hellenism and relating the Greek journey from ancient times to the modern Greek American experience.

Previously situated at a much smaller, temporary space in a downtown building, the institution relocated to sprawling premises, covering 3,716m2 on a prominent corner of busy Halsted Street.

Architect Demetrios Stavrianos designed the impressive, environmentally-conscious limestone-and-glass structure with the sky-grazing monasteries of central Greece’s Meteora in mind.

Dubbed “the newest thing in ancient history”, the museum plays host to interactive permanent exhibits and temporary shows, a children’s education centre, research library, oral history centre and other amenities. Its mission is to preserve and explore Hellenism and to chronicle the Greek American journey – following the immigration of tens of thousands of Greeks to the US, mostly in the mid-20th century – through exhibitions, oral records, archival collections and educational programmes.

Talk to the gods

Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece, a very popular travelling exhibition created by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, kicked off the new facility’s series of visiting shows.

People of all ages can take an interactive journey through the world of ancient Greece, meet with the gods, experience daily life in antiquity and familiarise themselves with elements of Homer’s epic works The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Children can explore the inner workings of a 3.6m-tall Trojan horse, walk through a Cyclops cave and learn to sing like the mythical sirens. The show will run through August.
While raising funds and preparing for the scheduled launch of the main permanent exhibition in the summer, In Search of Home: The Greek Journey From Myth to Modern Day, museum curators found an inventive way to whet visitors’ appetites.

Described on the museum’s website as “a definitive showcase for the exploration of the extraordinary elements of Greek history, culture and art that are at the very foundation of western civilisation and continue to influence our lives to this day”, the exhibit recreates the story of Greece’s most famous adventurer. “The highly immersive voyage begins with Homer asking a muse to tell the story of Odysseus, searching for his home, Ithaca. The journey includes a look at original artefacts, authentic casts from sites throughout Greece, interactive multimedia experiences and the richness that is Greek history, culture and art,” an announcement reads.

“The exhibit shows how out of the Greeks’ struggle through several wars, thousands of immigrants journeyed to America with little in their pockets, but a full heart yearning for opportunity and a new home.”

Visitors will be able to enjoy an “augmented reality experience” and view images of Chicago’s Greektown from the 1920s, other ethnic neighbourhoods in the city and Greektowns throughout the US.

Additionally, they will have access to integrated digital and social media components aimed at extending their interest in the exhibition once they leave and seeking out their own Ithaca.

Behind the scenes

An advance show, of the same name, offers an insider’s peek into how a museum display is set up and features curators’ notes, designers’ visual inspirations and curious morsels of information to be presented when the exhibit is inaugurated.
The Chicago Tribune recently named the sneak preview one of the city’s best museum exhibits of 2011.

“The result proves fascinating, both about the stated subject-matter and about the broader subject of putting artefacts and knowledge before the public,” the newspaper wrote.
While many third-generation Greek Americans have little knowledge of the Greek language, as their US-born parents tend to speak to them in English, the museum has found a clever way to contribute to the survival of the Greek tradition of storytelling.

Homer: The Oral History Project celebrates this integral element of the history of Greeks and Greek Americans through a multimedia collection of audio and video interviews and recordings with individuals and groups, many of them Greek immigrants to the US.

Launched in 2004 in collaboration with Chicago’s Columbia College, the University of Michigan and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, the aim of the Oral History Project is to promote understanding of the immigrant experience.

Visitors can view photographs and other donated items while listening to interesting quips and tales, like that of Eftichios “Van” Vlahakis on the German invasion of Crete in 1941, when he was just six years of age:
“After a week of bombing…half [of our] house was destroyed, the yard had seven holes from the bombs, and our street was completely devastated. My father said, ‘If we stay here, we will die’ … When we returned to the house, everything was destroyed … six months later the Germans took my father to the concentration camp … he got sick … after three months they brought him back and he died one week later.”

Individuals of Greek descent and relatives of Greeks are also eligible to offer up their own story to the project or recount true tales they have been told.

And Chicago may be home to one of the world’s largest Greek populations, but, as museum executive director Stephanie Vlahakis points out, the facility is for everyone.
“We don’t just preserve Greek culture; we celebrate it. The contributions of ancient Greece and of Greek America are everywhere in our culture,” she says.

“The US is a country of immigrants, and these stories will strike a universal chord with museumgoers. We all share the legacy of ancient Greece and of the Greek American experience. That’s why we say we’re all Greek!”

  • For further information, visit www.nationalhellenicmuseum.org

Talking about a museum revolution

The Athens News spoke with National Hellenic Museum president Stephanie A Vlahakis and curator Bethany Fleming about the grand new venture

Athens News: The National Hellenic Museum previously existed on one floor in a nearby building. Who established the original museum and why?

Stephanie A Vlahakis (photo): The museum was located in several temporary locations before our new building was completed. Our last temporary location was just a couple of blocks away from our current location. We occupied the entire fourth floor of a building in Greektown. The museum was incorporated in the early 80s and opened at its first temporary location in 1993. A group of Greek Americans in the Chicago community decided they wanted to preserve the story of Greeks in America along with our unique culture, heritage and history. Later our focus expanded to include Greek history to accommodate the increased public interest and interest from school groups.

Despite the state of the economy, how did the expansion and relocation of the museum come about? How was it funded and who continues to so generously support it?

We are now in the final phase of our capital fundraising for the building. The building is complete and we are open to the public. We raised over $15 million, mostly from endowments and gifts. The City of Chicago did provide financial support to help us purchase the property in Greektown.

How is the new facility different from the previous one?

There really is no comparison between the new and old museum. We were renting the old location and we were limited to 929m2, only half of which was usable for exhibitions. Our focus is still the same, but we now have a state-of-the-art 3,716m2 building. Our entire second floor is dedicated to our permanent exhibition, In Search of Home: The Greek Journey from Myth to Modern Day.

Our first floor has a special events room, a museum gift store and exhibition space for travelling exhibitions. Right now, we’re featuring an exhibition called Gods, Myths, and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece. The exhibition is targeted at school-aged children but is really for all ages, as we have authentic artefacts on loan from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

On our third floor we have a digital research library and a digital oral history centre where we record, preserve and showcase the stories of Greek immigrants
(or their family members). We also have a spectacular rooftop terrace that will be open to all museum members.

It has never been easy to make youth curious about history, particularly the ancients, but there has been a resurgence of interest in recent years. Why do you think this has happened?

It’s all about how you relay history to the youth. Movies like 300, Clash of the Titans, Alexander, Troy, Immortals and Percy Jackson & the Olympians have ignited a great interest in history. In our old location, Fox Studios loaned us the “props” from the Percy Jackson movie and we used these artefacts to tell the story of Greek mythology. The exhibition was a blockbuster success for us.

In our new museum we allow all forms of social media into the storytelling. We use bar codes throughout the exhibitions, so if you use your smart phone or bar code scanner you can find out where you can go for more information on a particular area of history. We have thousands of years of history to cover in a limited space. But, we open up the dialogue for the visitor to share their story with us.
We use the words of storytellers throughout history in our exhibition narrative. We show the visitor how “we are all Greek” and that their story, regardless of where they came from, is connected to our story.

Why do you think it is important for there to be a national Hellenic museum in the US?

There are museums in this country dedicated to every other ethnic group – but nowhere is there a museum dedicated to Greek Americans. We have a unique story to tell, with history that spans thousands of years. There are museums dedicated to barbed wire, to chocolate and even to mustard, but not one with a primary focus on the contributions of Greece and Greek America.

What are some of the more interesting, valuable or unusual items on display in the permanent exhibits?

Bethany Fleming: We currently have a number of interesting pieces on display in our second-floor exhibition: In Search of Home: The Greek Journey from Myth to Modern Day. We have a number of pieces of Cypriot pottery from the Bronze Age, coins from the time of Constantine the Great, a collection of over 80 dolls in regional Greek costume and the contents of an entire Greek American candy store that opened in 1906 and operated in the 1950s in Chicago, as well as many other pieces from our collection of over 15,000 items.

The text for our current exhibitions is in English. However, one of our interactives seeks to teach visitors Linear A and B, and Ancient Greek through the alphabet. Our permanent exhibition will incorporate both Modern and Ancient Greek; however, not every text will be in all languages.

The museum has dedicated an entire centre to oral history. Why is it so important to ensure this oral tradition is preserved for future generations of Greek Americans?

One of the main ways that the National Hellenic Museum connects visitors to one another and to the past is through stories. Homer, our oral history project, provides a place not only to preserve the stories of Greek Americans and their struggles and successes, but also connects all of us to those stories.

Who visits the museum?

Although we have only been open for less than one month, we have seen a great variety of visitors, from all over the US and overseas. We have had many, many families and a number of school groups. We are excited to welcome more and more visitors throughout the year.

What have been the reactions from visitors to the new museum – including regular museum visitors, the very young but also the older generations and those who, perhaps, donated items of value to the previous facility?

Reactions have been extremely positive, from younger visitors excited by the interactives and ancient Greek history to the many donors who have chosen to preserve their family stories in our collections.

Is the museum also a way for young Greek Americans, many of whom perhaps don’t speak Greek, to learn about their history and retain a connection with the country?

Absolutely. 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. We do this through our exhibitions, but also through various programmes and lectures, including classes in Greek language.

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