American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration’



of an Exhibit

by Kristen Vogt

Published on February 28, 2016 , Modified on March 01, 2016

  • Museum: National Hellenic Museum

  • Visit Date: February, 2013

  • Description:

    Visiting the National Hellenic Museum, and its permanent exhibit (‘American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration’), was, in many ways, both a surprise and an expected treat. Like many ethnic museums in Chicago, it is a smaller institution within an ethnic community (on Halsted St, in the heart of Greektown). However, it is mentioned upon the visitor’s arrival (at least our docent informed us), that the museum, though centered within one of the largest Greek communities outside of Europe, is not just for Chicago’s large Hellenic community, but for Americans who identify as Greek, and all Americans. Acknowledging this, I went inside the exhibit, whose deep blue lights and soft lighting highlighted the information at hand. When one hears the term ‘Greek’, images of marble statues, Homeric poetry and gyros come to mind. Few think of the ongoing cultural changes that have tempered Greece throughout the centuries, ranging from the Schism of the Faith to wars with Turkey (both of which are quickly mentioned in displays about why Greeks left), which have shaped her people and the immigrants who still pass on their traditions here in the United States. The permanent exhibit on the second floor details the experience of leaving Greece, using historical photographs, narrations from immigrants throughout the US (a large portion from Chicago), and historical artifacts, which range from a simple Shepard’s cloak to a beautiful, elaborate wedding dress from the 19th century. The exhibit followed a timeline throughout the 19th, 20th centuries, and 21st centuries, naming different cities that Greeks moved to, reasons why (many followed industries, such as steel mills and fishing), and how the impact of community eased immigrant transitions. What was a surprising treat of the NHM is how inclusive the narration was, both within the permanent exhibit and the two visiting exhibits below (‘Marathon’ and ‘Traditions in Greek Orthodoxy’). While the museum certainly had the chance to make the exhibit about ‘The Greek’ story, in many ways, it took on the shade of The American story, quietly but firmly showing through both the ongoing narration, images, and permanent exhibit often pointed out legacies that Greek immigrants have had on American culture (the ubiquitous Greek diner, for one, which many pictures were shown). There were also plenty of seats, and easily accessible bathrooms at the end of the exhibit for visitor’s comfort. Overall, the museum was a diverse, educational experience. It left me, as a visitor, feeling not only that I had learned something, but that I had a pleasant experience that I could easily share with others by telling them about what I had gained from visiting this museum, and how the Greek story, in many ways, is a story that affects us all.
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