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Saluting those Guarding a Thermopylae: A Look at the Epirotes’ Folk Museum in NYC

The impetus for today’s column comes from the commendable initiative of the Society of Epirotes ‘Anagennisis – Souliotissai’ for the renovation of the folk museum housed on the top floor of their Astoria, NY headquarters, which was rededicated on May 22, 2022. This is one of the few museums of its kind in the Greek-American Community. Similar museums are housed in the Greek Orthodox Cathedrals of Boston, MA and Portland, OR, the Greek Jewish Synagogue and Museum in Lower Manhattan, and the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

Aside from decorating a particular space with showcases, a museum’s contribution has multiple other purposes. The operation of a museum extends a continual invitation to the public to enter into a dialogue transcending space and time with the creators or donors of the artifacts. Spectators are called to contemplate the ethos and values that the artifacts on display preserve and promote.

An erudite and dynamic prelate who has placed special emphasis on the role of the museum as a means of developing vivid and ongoing dialogue with the torchbearers of a specific culture and participating in that culture is His Eminence Metropolitan Cleopas of Sweden and All Scandinavia. Dating back to his priestly ministry in the United States prior to his elevation to the episcopacy by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2014, he managed to establish two museums in parishes where he served. With the assumption of his archpastoral duties in Scandinavia, he proceeded to establish the Museum of Hellenic Christian Heritage, which is housed in the St. George Cathedral of Stockholm and was dedicated by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during the latter’s official visit to Stockholm in October 2019.

Some of Metropolitan Cleopas’ thoughts on the importance of museums are cited below, inasmuch as they capture the significance that local museums have to offer and provide a fitting context regarding the effort to showcase Hellenism’s cultural legacy across the world through folk art: “It is our duty to teach, educate, inform, and promote this double inheritance whose point of reference is the Aghia Sophia in Constantinople and the Parthenon in Athens.”

Elsewhere, he notes that “it is our responsibility to promote the Hellenic Christian legacy to a wider… audience, artifacts of which, having survived throughout centuries, are displayed in museum showcases and thoroughly express its values, perspective, ideals, and aesthetics. This cultural achievement will lead to a type of dialectical relationship with the visitor (aesthetic enjoyment – comparing/contrasting – thoughtful questioning), promote contact with Hellenic Christian culture as part of European civilization, and essentially, as part of the universal cultural structure.”

Finally, highlighting the prospects of such spiritual/cultural efforts, he states “let us avail ourselves of the presence of this museum and view it as a place of contemplation, prayer, reflection, timeless dialogue, research, and study. Let us discover our culture and study our history, for all that we see in the showcases represents us ‘throughout the ages’!”

Returning to the contribution of New York City’s organized Epirotes, one can only feel pride at the respect these Greek-Americans show for the history of their regional homeland, and their effort to share this history with the younger generations, the rest of the Greek-American Community, and American society in general.

The President of “Anagennisis”, Chris Pantazis, did a fine job of expressing this spirit of serving the common good by publicly inviting local area Greek schools to visit the museum within the context of an educational outing, as well as to other Greek-American organizations, encouraging them to use the space to promote their own temporary exhibitions, which will showcase cultural elements extending beyond the geographical borders of Epirus. This decision exudes magnanimity and a wider interest in the ‘community’, which is not exhausted in provincialism, but embraces the Greek ‘koinon’ or plenitude of the Community.

Respect for a people’s history is a pre-requisite for progress. In Greece, especially in recent decades, there appears to be a dastardly campaign being waged by certain circles to wipe out Hellenism’s historic memory.

Important moments in Greek history are either excluded from the school curriculum altogether or are altered/rendered so abstract that they are more easily forgotten than remembered. The Greek political system is particularly blameworthy, and culpability lies with all political parties!

For example, Parliament members from both major parties have at times made unacceptable statements denying the Pontian Genocide, which were rightly denounced by society, but which drew no reaction from otherwise uber-politically correct party apparatuses. The same holds true for textbooks, like the one co-authored by former MP Maria Repousi, whose description of the Asia Minor Catastrophe was an affront to Hellenism and the countless souls of those who perished due to unspeakable Turkish atrocities.

Of course, there is always the infamous Prespa Agreement, which was passed by the former administration, headed by the SYRIXA party and a handful of political strays who jumped ship from their sinking parties and were jacked into cushy positions in exchange for their vote. The rest is history. The current governing party, faux-conservative New Democracy, “respected” the agreement, despite the fact that it was completely one-sided and continues to be systematically violated by the government of Skopje.

And, as Nobel laureate George Seferis writes, “when stupidity is put in motion, who can stop it” – we are now witnessing Turkish ad campaigns inviting tourists to come and visit the… “Turkaegean” (sic)!

We counter by pointing out that the words forgetfulness and truth are inextricably linked as etymological opposites in the Greek language (‘lithi’ vs. ‘a-litheia’), meaning that for Hellenes, truth represents an absence of forgetfulness!

Congratulations to all those who aid in the preservation of Greek culture, keep truth alive, and promote the Hellenic cultural legacy through commendable works, like the establishment and operation of museums. May their example inspire many others to follow suit, ensuring that the dialogue between yesterday and today remains alive so as to graft and shape tomorrow. In the words of C.P. Cavafy, “honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae.”

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

 

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