National Hellenic Museum: Greek American History’s Place in America History

The National Hellenic Museum, which opened its new 40,000-square-foot facility on Halsted Street in Chicago’s Greek Town in December 2011, is the first and only major museum dedicated to chronicling the entire Greek story: the path from Greece to the United States, to becoming American, to the Greek contribution to the American historical landscape and culture. Presently, two exhibits curated by Bethany Fleming, Curator of the Museum, celebrate the Museum’s first year on Halsted Street, “The Spirit of the Marathon: From Pheidippides to Today”, and “American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration”.

The Museum has been in existence for 30 years, having been established in 1983, but the new museum is an $18 million super facility with interactive exhibits, children’s education center, research library, oral history center, gift shop, special events hall, and rooftop terrace, and, it has a super new Director, as well, Connie Mourtoupalas. “This is something I really love doing,” Ms. Mourtoupalas told the GN. “The Museum is not only about the Greek-Americans of Chicago or of Illinois, but it is 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 is that it is not just Greek American history, its American history.”

John Calamos Sr., CEO and Global Co-Chief Investment Officer of Calamos Investments and Chairman of the Board of the National Hellenic Museum concurred with this, saying “The National Hellenic Museum is valuable in that it conveys the stories of Greek immigrants as they came to America, worked hard and relied on their value system to achieve the American dream. This is not just a story for and about Greeks, however, it is a story for all Americans.”

Mr. Calamos, who is very concerned about the young generation and their knowledge of history, feels that the Museum is of great importance in the education of the new generation. “The Museum has an important opportunity to motivate young people and educate them about history and the contributions of Greek Americans,” he said, with the warning that “If we don’t preserve this history now, it will be lost forever. We need to give the strength of our heritage to our children.”

The National Hellenic Museum a valuable way to preserve and share Greek history, but it serves as a cultural center, as well, Calamos added, “It’s important to note that while the Museum is located in Chicago’s Greek Town, it has a focus that is national and even international. I feel strongly that in order to know where we’re going as a society and as the Greek community, you have to know where you’ve been.”

And Greek Town, the Greek community, and the Museum are a great inspiration to Ms. Mourtoupalas. “When I came here and saw this building, I was just amazed, and I was very moved,” she said with emotion, “Nobody had done something like this; the community here had the vision and the foresight…. they really saw the need for a national home for the Greek story, and moved ahead little but little by little… they all stuck together and some people put themselves out on a limb; they gave a lot of money, they put aside their professions for some time and made sure that it was built.”

Ms. Mourtopalas hasn’t worked at an in-house museum before but it seems clear that she is eminently qualified to do so, as a Greek-born Greek American and having worked for 16 years at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, DC, where she served as Cultural Attaché, initiating, developing and managing the Embassy’s cultural and public outreach programs and serving as Public Affairs Advisor to the Ambassador, establishing relationships with the U.S. Congress and Administration, major media outlets, the diplomatic community, think-tanks, museums, cultural centers, universities and Greek American organizations nationwide.

Enthusiastically, Mourtoupalas describes the Museum as “state of the art, 40,000 square feet. Incredible exhibit space, wonderful spaces for events, archival section, library, recording studio for oral histories, temperature-controlled storage space, an incredible, big, education center that accommodates 80 students at a time–we offer Greek classes here–and workshops for kids relating to our exhibits.
Furthermore, the turnout is terrific, “It hasn’t even been a year since the museum opened; as of May 6,000 kids from the Chicago public schools had come through, and by now, it’s probably close to 11,000. The Museum has programs relating to the exhibits. The kids come in and do arts and crafts, as they did for our show this August, ‘Gods, Myths, and Mortals’.”

“Right now, our exhibit, ‘The Spirit of the Marathon: From Pheidippides to Today’, which was sponsored by the National Hellenic Society, tells the story of what is now a ubiquitous event. Everyone knows what a Marathon is… millions of people participate in them, but who knows the history, what inspired it? This show explores the history, culture and impact of the Marathon.” Ms. Mourtoupalas explained that this was designed to be a traveling exhibition. “When it goes to New York we will get rid of the last panel shown here–the Chicago Marathon, and we will design a panel for the New York Marathon, for the Boston Marathon, Atlanta…and so on, for different cities.”

“Our exhibit ‘American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration’, is very moving and very educational–everything we do is educational–and it presents the history of Greek immigration to the United States from an objective point of view. We focus on the 1800’s and later,” said Mourtoupalas, going on to detail “some incredible stories of early Greek immigrants who made an impact on American history and society,” such as George M. Colvocoresses, a survivor of the 1822 Chios Massacre who became a United States Naval Officer commanding the Saratoga in the American Civil War (and winning several definitive battles against the Confederates) then a lead member of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, exploring the Pacific Ocean; John C. Zachos and Photius Fisk, orphans of the Greek War of Independence who had a particular interest in helping slaves and the uneducated; Michael Anagnos, a supporter of the Cretan Revolution against the Ottomans whom American Philhellene Samuel Gridley Howe hired as an assistant and who eventually became the Director of the Perkins School for the Blind, where led to the family of a blind girl, Helen Keller, by Alexander Graham Bell, Anagnos sent his graduate, Anne Sullivan, to help the young girl, who went on to graduate from the Perkins School and become a legendary speaker and activist.

“The exhibition begins with the first really large wave of immigration, the mass migration of the 1890’s, the European Depression; just like now, Europe was in a depression, and some arts of the US weren’t doing much better, so in 1893, Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis declared bankruptcy for Greece,” said Ms. Mourtoupalas, drawing a parallel with today, and going on to describe in detail the historical events the exhibition illustrates, such as the occupations that Greeks took, naming among others, mining, sponge diving, “anywhere they could find work”. Ms. Mourtoupalas, whose grandfather’s foustanella is included in the exhibit, pointed out that as the well as the foustanella, some of the Greek arrivals to Ellis Island were actually wearing the heavy goat hair capes worn in Greece at the time.

Addressing the question of how the public can support the Museum’s endeavors, Ms. Mourtoupalas said, “Joining, or giving a Museum membership as a holiday gift. People can make a donation in someone’s memory or participate in the Legacy Brick program; document a journey, celebrate a special occasion, or memorialize a loved one, and the brick will be on permanent display by the main entrance of the National Hellenic Museum.”

She reports that there are original ideas, as well. “It’s amazing how people find ways to help. Recently there was a request, when a loved one died, to make a donation to the Museum instead of sending flowers. Coming to visit, is an important way; Chicago is a worthwhile trip, a great trip for the holidays. It’s a beautiful city. Now the spectacular Jaharis galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago are an additional attraction… and Greek Town is a destination. And you can bring your kids. On December 15 we are planning a wonderful Greek Christmas for families. There will be programs for children: we will have the kalanda, and traditional breads and desserts. There will be storytelling… stories about the kalikantzari!… and there will be dancing…”

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