* “The Greek immigrant story is the story of all immigrants,” says Laura Calamos, president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, about the museum’s extensive collections representing the Greek experience in America.
Often an overlooked gem, the National Hellenic Museum celebrates the Greek heritage in the U.S., North America and in Chicago, which has one of the largest populations of Greek-Americans in the U.S.
“People have been coming here from Greece for over 100 years, and there’s a great diversity in where they settled in the U.S.,” says Calamos, who uses the term Neos Kosmos, Greek for new world.
“Many of the ancestors of the Greeks in Chicago came from villages in the Peloponnesus. Sponge-divers went to Tarpon Springs, Florida, and sheepherders ended up out West.
"As a national museum, we serve as the hub of all their experiences.”
Calamos, who is of Greek descent, believes that learning provides an in-depth answer to every question, and sees NHM, as it's called for short, as having lots of great interactive exhibits and activities to provide that learning — including its extensive immigrant collections; exhibits such as the current “Reaching for The American Dream: The Greek Story in America”; education series; field trips; rentals; school group tours; and special events.
Ultimately, NHM teaches what it means to be an American.
“We start with the world map, then the U.S. map and then Illinois,” says Calamos, noting that Chicago is a city of people from around the world and, thus, one immigrant’s story is the story of all.
“We ask them questions like, who in your family might have taken the trip, how long would it have taken, talk to them why they would do it, what it would be like and what would they take with them if they were making the trip.
“People come in, and we listen to their stories — we have over 400 oral histories," Calamos says.
"They share the items they carried on their journey to America that they’ve saved and treasured all these years and now are donating to us. We have more than 10,000 artifacts that we preserve, over 100 archival collections, and three floors of galleries.”
Nasir, a former college professor (among many other careers she’s had), has a PhD in health care research from King’s College London and joined the Higher Education Academy as a Fellow specializing in online education.
She says NHM's interactive learning available for visitors of all ages incorporates experiential and critical thinking into all the offerings including song and dance, arts and crafts, the library and research center — and theater, a classic Greek tradition for centuries.
Upcoming 'trial' of historic figure a key event
The theater hosts one of the museum's signature events: The NHM Trial Series.
“That sells out quickly and attracts many people every year that we’ve held it — the audience is the jury,” she says, emphasizing that each "trial" is not a scripted mock trial but, instead, one with real lawyers and judges, many of them well-known and highly respected lawyers in Chicago.
“Over the years, the trials have been nominated for a Midwest Emmy," Calamos says.
"They’re uniquely interesting as well as fun, and you don’t have to be a lawyer or a Greek to enjoy them. You can enjoy the history.
"This is one of our ways of drawing back the legacy of the trial — it’s Hellenism in action — an Athenian demonstration with a trial by jury and citizens voting. After all, parts of our democracy come from Greece.”
This year, the museum again is holding a mock trial of a noted Greek figure as part of a significant incident from history. Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, will be tried at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20.
In the past, the audience has decided the outcome in the trials of Orestes, of Greek mythology (and the play by Euripides), who killed his mother, Clytemnestra; the Parthenon Marbles (artifacts from the Acropolis and Parthenon allegedly stolen by a British archaeologist in the 17th century); Antigone, the protagonist of the Sophocles' play by the same name; and the philosopher Socrates, sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for his unorthodox views and teachings.
Socrates was judged by such noted Chicagoans as former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals William J. Bauer.
This year, Hippocrates will be tried for the murder of the King of Thebes. Hippocrates was called to the bed of the dying king and recognized his illness was fatal. Still, when the king offered him a herd of horses, Hippocrates gave him a potion to quell the king’s fever.
Unfortunately, although the fever subsided, the king developed boils, and Hippocrates again said there was nothing more that could be done. Kings being kings, he demanded Hippocrates continue to treat him — offering gold in exchange for a salve, and vineyards and a villa for a potion. But, alas, despite all the treatments, the king died, and Hippocrates was arrested.
It will be up to those in the audience to decide whether he’s guilty.
Those presenting the case include Fitzgerald, now a partner at the law firm Skadden, Arps, and Dan K. Webb, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and now co-chairman of Winston-Strawn, a multinational Chicago law firm.
The Honorable Charles P. Kocoras acts as the presiding judge along with Chicago judges William J. Bauer, Sharon Johnson Coleman and Anna H. Demacopoulos.
Calamos says the museum's particular strength and charm is this dual focus both on the ancient Greek philosophers who taught us how to think and how important it is to ask questions, and the Greek immigrants who have — or whose ancestors have — made the long trip to America from their homeland.
“People come to us; they say this is my grandmother’s hand-stitched tablecloth that was in her dowry when she came over back in the late 1800s,” Nasir says.
“These are stories we hear and the artifacts that we display. You’re never the same when you leave home on a journey, and we tell about those journeys.”
* This story has been changed.
For more information: nationalhellenicmuseum.org
What: The Trial of Hippocrates
When: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph St., Chicago
Cost: Tickets are $100 per person in advance and can be purchased online at www.harristheaterchicago.org or by calling the Harris Theater for Music and Dance Box Office at (312) 334.7777