CHICAGO — Dolls a Greek woman made during World War II. Ice cream bowls and wooden spoons from a 1940s Greek candy store. Thousands of record albums filled with Greek music.
These items and many other beloved objects and family heirlooms have found their way from around the country to the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, which has a new place to store and exhibit them all, in a four-story 40,000-square-foot environmentally friendly building of limestone and glass that opened in early December.
The $20 million project in the city’s Greektown neighborhood, which includes temporary and permanent exhibition space, classrooms, oral history archives, a library and roof patio overlooking downtown, replaces the museum’s previous space a few blocks away on one floor of a four-story building.
“This museum became by default the repository for artifacts from the Greek American experience because there was no other place people felt secure donating their items,” said Stephanie Vlahakis, the museum’s executive director.
Outside the museum, the street bustles with diners at Greek restaurants like The Parthenon, Athena or Santorini. A group of men speak Greek during an animated game of backgammon at the Panhellenic Pastry Shop with mounds of powdered sugar almond cookies and baklava piled in the glass cases behind the counter.
“We are telling the story of Greek America,” Vlahakis said. “We just start from the beginning, from ancient times and bring it to the modern times.”
The museum is a work in progress, with a skeleton version of the permanent exhibit on the second floor. Curators have scribbled design concepts in colored marker on the walls, like “absolutely want mosaic work” or “look into etching on glass?” The hope is to raise enough money to fill the displays out in a year.
But there is still plenty to see: shelves filled with items from a Greek family in New York, a wall of black and white pictures that chronicles the story of Greek immigrants in America and an area to learn the Greek alphabet. Visitors can watch a short introductory video narrated by, who else, George Stephanopoulos.
Museum curator Bethany Fleming hopes to travel to Greece and make casts of columns, gates and parts of temples to bring back to Chicago.
Downstairs the temporary exhibit space is home to “Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece,” an exhibit on loan from the Children’s Museum of Manhattan until August. It’s a child’s view of the daily life of ancient Greece and its legends and heroes, like Aristotle, Odysseus and Cyclops.
“What we want to do with all our exhibits is create a place where all generations of visitors can connect,” Fleming said.
There’s a kid-sized recreated Greek temple, and children can dress up in togas in front of a mirror or crawl into a jungle-gym Trojan horse. Interspersed are nearly three dozen Greek artifacts, including coins, pottery and figurines. One Macedonian drachma coin dates to 336-323 B.C. and is about the size of a dime.
The museum building itself is inspired by nature, containing elements of earth, air, fire and water. Inside a large, sky-lit stairway leads visitors from east to west, symbolizing the travel of Greek immigrants from Europe to America. Everything, Vlahakis says, was done deliberately to parallel the Greek American experience.
“So much of our world is inspired by the ancient,” she said.