Interview by Michael Nevradakis
Launched in October of 2015, the Politismos Museum of Greek History is an online museum which brings ancient and contemporary Greek history and culture to a worldwide audience, with a goal to soon establish a physical museum presence in the United States. In this interview, Despina Kreatsoulas, co-founder of the Politismos Museum, discusses the idea behind the museum, its exhibits and related offerings, the museum’s future plans, and the importance of Greek culture within the global community today.
Michael Nevradakis: Share with us some words about how the idea for an online museum of Greek history and culture came about, and how the Politismos Museum was founded.
Despina Kreatsoulas: Our hope is to one day have a physical museum in Sacramento, California, and as we were looking at how we do this—I was actually doing some research for another project, at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. It’s a phenomenal museum, and what was most impressive was not the thousands of people who walk through their doors on a daily presence, but the millions of people who they reach with their online exhibits. We thought that this could potentially be a really great way to get the information out there, to build an audience, to start sharing stories, and to start building a profile for ourselves. We thought this would be the ideal way to get started, to build a presence, and to move forward.
Besides the obvious difference of not having a physical presence, at the moment at least, how does an online museum differ from a conventional museum?
I think, actually, that we have a few more opportunities available to us in being creative, in that if we were a physical museum, the challenge is always having a wide variety of artifacts. By being online, we can have images that reflect the stories, the history, and that type of thing. For instance, exhibits that have to do with antiquities, it would be a little difficult getting some antiquities into the United States, of course, so we’re able to use images [online]. It also allows us to get a little creative and to explore some greater things: literature, contemporary art, so we’re able to expand what we’re doing.
Do the exhibits of the Politismos Museum focus exclusively on historical material and artifacts, or is there also a place for exhibits on contemporary Greece?
We’re actually doing a little bit of everything. It’s history and culture, we’re trying to look at the various aspects of Greece: history, culture, music, and so we’re able to do a little bit of everything.
Tell us about some of the exhibits that are currently featured online as part of the Politismos Museum.
We launched on October 28th, and of course we had to do something for the 75th commemoration of “Oxi Day,” so we have an exhibit that looks at the early days of the Greco-Italian War, then we have another exhibit which looks at the Greek-American response, and that was the organization of the Greek War Relief Organization, which raised tens of millions of dollars and sent relief to Greece. We have another exhibit called “Crisis is a Greek Word,” which was done here in Athens. It was shown in Athens, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and it was a group of graphic designers who came together to show the creativity that comes out of crisis. We have another exhibit called “Lupimaris – Wolves of the Sea,” which was done by a gentleman in Austria who came and saw the fishermen of Paros, was fascinated by their story, and wanted to do something to document their lives and what they do because that tradition is also dying out. We have a special exhibit that opened on March 25th in recognition of Greek independence. And, we also have an exhibition by Dr. George Kordis, who is an iconographer and an artist, and he painted his images as influenced by the works of Nikos Engonopoulos, the contemporary poet.
There is a special section for children as well in the Politismos Museum from what I understand.
Yes. What we’re doing is, we’re creating short stories and short exhibits for children. It’s a great tool for children who are learning a second language, be it Greek-American children learning Greek, or students [in Greece] who are learning English. We’re working with some Greek schools to use it as a tool in the home and in their classes.
We have a great team here which writes on places to visit, museums, exhibits, theater productions, gastronomy, movements in health and that type of thing.
In addition to the online exhibits, the Politismos Museum features an e-magazine as well… share with us a few words about the magazine.
The magazine is really an opportunity for young professionals here in Greece to share the secrets of Greece. We have a great team here which writes on places to visit, museums, exhibits, theater productions, gastronomy, movements in health and that type of thing. It’s really an insider’s look into Greece. We want to take it a little bit beyond just history and culture, we want to expose people to what’s happening in Greece as well.
What are some of the future plans of the Politismos Museum in terms of exhibits that will be featured?
We’re working with a historian here in Greece and we’re producing an exhibit on the original Olympic Games, Dr. Elizabeth Whalen-Barber, who is an expert on textiles. We’re doing another one on the ancient dancers of Crete, and we also have a very special exhibit that’s going to be opening, on the Greeks who came to the United States in the early 1900s and who returned to Greece to fight for Greece during the Balkan Wars. And we have a few more that are coming, but we’ll have you visit our site to surprise you with those.
Tell us more about your plans to develop a physical museum in Sacramento.
It’s very preliminary. We just started organizing this about a year and a half ago, but we hope that we can have a small space where we can have physical exhibits, where we can bring in schoolchildren to expose them to both ancient and modern Greek history. We had done a number of exhibits with California State University-Sacramento. Those were very well received by the community, so we’d like to carry on that tradition and share our history and our culture.
How did Sacramento end up being selected? Tell us about this choice and about the Greek community there.
Sacramento would be my hometown, and I thought it would be a really great place. We do have a large Greek-American community in Sacramento, and we also have a community that is very supportive of the Greek culture. The Greek festival in Sacramento is one of the largest cultural events, attended by thousands over a three-day weekend. There’s a blossoming international flavor in Sacramento as well, so we think it’s a great place for it to be.
Are there any plans or any future thoughts to also locate a physical museum site in Greece?
That would be great, but there are so many phenomenal museums in Greece already, that we’d like to just be able to collaborate with all of them. I think the most important thing is that we do want to collaborate and we want to expose people to the amazing things that are already happening here in Greece and the places they should be going to.
Despite what you hear on the news, despite the crisis and all of this, there’s talent, there’s creativity, there’s ingenuity, and there’s hope, and we want to expose that.
There is a lot of pessimism in Greece today, about the country and its place in the world. How can an initiative such as the Politismos Museum contribute to a more positive image of Greece and a more positive outlook for the Greek people?
Greece, and the Greek people, have had many challenges for thousands of years. There is an incredibly enduring spirit in this country, and no matter what they face, they always come through it. I think what’s important is that we want to show that, despite what you hear on the news, despite the crisis and all of this, there’s talent, there’s creativity, there’s ingenuity, and there’s hope, and we want to expose that.
Have you had the opportunity to collaborate with any organizations or institutions, either in the United States or in Greece?
We’ve worked with the California State University Department of Hellenic Studies, who has offered information for some of the exhibits we’ve created. The Department of Public History has offered students to work as interns and docents to help us for programs we’re creating. The Rockland Academy family of schools is working with us as we’re creating a Living History program to take into the classrooms. We’ve been very fortunate to have institutions like the Hellenic War Museum and the Hellenic Army Archives share photographs with us for exhibits. We are here in Greece now speaking with historians, institutions, and academics who are graciously offering us content. I think one of the ones that we’re most grateful for is, before we had even opened our online doors, Alpha Bank shared their “Athenian Owls” exhibit with us, and it was a phenomenal opportunity for us to be able to share that as we launched.
How can young artists, creative individuals, and members of the public contribute their materials to the Politismos Museum?
They can visit our website, politismosmuseum.org, they can send us an e-mail, get in touch with us. I think that technology has really allowed people to share their family treasures as well as to share them with future generations. We would love to grow our photo archives, oral histories, that type of thing. Young people who are interested in getting involved, either writing for the magazine, sharing ideas for future stories or exhibits. We have an amazing team here in Greece and we call them our “ears and our eyes.” We welcome ideas, we welcome thoughts, and we want to be a community effort.