CHRIS WALKER, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
The exhibit “American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration” is shown at the National Hellenic Museum.
By Kerry Reid, Special to the Tribune
8:55 am, November 15, 2012
It’s nestled in the heart of Chicago’s (admittedly dwindling) Greektown, but as its name implies, the National Hellenic Museum has a far wider mission than just preserving the history of Chicago’s Greek community. This week, the museum, which was founded in 1983 as the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center and took its new name in 2009, celebrates its first year in its eco-friendly 40,000-square-foot Halsted Street modernist home (designed by Demetrios Stavrianos of the Chicago office of RTKL Associates) with a pair of exhibitions celebrating the breadth of Greek and Greek-American experience.
“The Spirit of the Marathon: From Pheidippides to Today” traces the history of the most heroic athletic event this side of the Ironman triathlon — from the titular courier who brought news of the Greek triumph over the Persians in the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., to its introduction as a competitive event at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, to the inspiring story of 1946’s Boston Marathon champion, Greece’s Stylianos Kyriakides. The latter used his victory to help raise awareness and funds for his fellow Greek citizens who had been left famine-stricken after World War II.
Heroism and going the distance also figure into “American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration,” which shows the wide-ranging influence of Greeks on American culture through photographs, oral history (much of which will eventually be available through the museum’s website), and an array of artifacts, including the wrestling trunks worn by “The Golden Greek” Jim Londos, one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the Great Depression, to more traditional clothing, including the foustanella, or pleated skirt, worn by museum President Connie Mourtoupalas’ grandfather on his wedding day.
Mourtoupalas, whose family emigrated from Greece to Washington, D.C., in 1966, has only been with the National Hellenic Museum for five months, but she brings extensive experience in promoting Greek culture, including 16 years as the cultural attache at the Embassy of Greece in Washington.
Mourtoupalas notes that the museum “is not only about the Greek-Americans of Chicago or of Illinois, but it’s a national repository of everything that relates to Greek immigration, and then to the life and history of the communities and its members and what they have contributed to America in general. Because the way we view this, it’s not just Greek-American history. It’s American history.”
And of course, it’s impossible to talk about traditions of Western democracy and literature without acknowledging the deep roots of ancient Greece. It was, Mourtoupalas says, very much by design that the first large exhibition the museum held in the new space, “Gods, Myths, and Mortals,” originally developed by the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, paid homage to “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”
Curator Bethany Fleming notes that both the museum’s large archival collection (which has not yet been organized into a permanent exhibition in the new building) and the artifacts in “American Moments” come from all over. “East Coast, West Coast, the South. And certainly the Chicago area,” she said. “The collection is primarily from the last 150 years from the Greek-American community, but we do have pieces that span back to about 1200 B.C. Some pottery as well as some Byzantine coins and things like that. But by and large, our collection is primarily the Greek-American heritage. Some of our most extensive collections are not from Chicago.”
The geographic dispersal of the Greeks in America mirrors that of other immigrant groups from the late 19th and early 20th century, Fleming notes. Many of the earliest arrivals were young men who sought work in textile mills in New England, and also in the railroads and the mines out West — often, they would later form marriages with mail-order or “picture brides” from their homeland.
A series of photographs commemorates the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in which Louis Tikas of Crete, a union organizer for the United Mineworkers of America, was shot to death during an attack by state militia and Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. guards on a Ludlow, Colo., camp occupied by striking coal miners. Several others, including women and children, were burned to death when their tents caught fire. The fact that the attack took place on Greek Orthodox Easter added to the national outpouring of outrage.
Like many immigrants, Greeks also found work in America that meshed with their traditional skills in the old country — whether herding sheep in the American West (the museum very recently acquired the archives of an elderly Greek-American man who is the informal historian for Greeks in Montana) or diving for sponges in Tarpon Springs, Fla. There, Fleming notes, Greek immigrants defied the Jim Crow mindset and worked alongside African-American divers.
The exhibit isn’t all about the struggle for economic and political justice, of course. There is literally a sweet side to the story of Greeks in America and particularly in Chicago. If you like Dove Bars, thank a Greek — specifically, Leo Stefanos of Dove Candies and Ice Cream, who first invented the toothsome treat in 1956. Items from the early days of Dove are on display. Fleming also points out photos that show the evolution of Greeks in the restaurant and hospitality industry where they famously flourish now — from hand-pulled fruit carts to small markets to cafes and diners all over the country, including the famous Dixie Chili in Newport, Ky., founded in 1929 by Nicholas Sarakatsannis.
Greece’s current economic woes could, notes Mourtoupalas, lead to a fresh influx of Greek immigrants to the United States. And the National Hellenic Museum will be ready to capture their stories as well.
For her part, Mourtoupalas doesn’t think they will run out of material anytime soon. “In a way, being a museum that sort of navigates Greek culture and Greek history — it’s a privilege in many ways, but it also gives you a great product that speaks to a lot of people.”
‘American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration’
When: Opens Thursday
Where: National Hellenic Museum, 333 S. Halsted St.
Tickets: Free open house 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday; regular admission $7-$10 at 312-655-1234 or nationalhellenicmuseum.org