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A Legacy to be Proud of – How Heritage Museum of Epirus Keeps Tradition Alive
by Marie Lolis
Nestled in the heart of Astoria, Queens, the one of a kind Heritage Museum of Epirus hopes to keep tradition and history alive for future generations to appreciate and embrace. The newly refurbished museum exhibits numerous artifacts from the northern region of Greece including costumes and jewelry. As opposed to other comprehensive Greek culture museums such as the National Hellenic Museum of Chicago, the Heritage Museum of Epirus focuses solely on the history and culture of the region, with donations comprising much of what is exhibited.
“Everybody has a story behind each one of these items. People have so much pride in the one item that they brought in,” explained museum director Vasiliki Kantlis. “They like to see a piece of themselves. It’s almost like a legacy that can lead future generations of their children to say, look, this is where you came from.”
Earlier this year, an exhibit dedicated to Epirus and the Balkan Wars curated by Peter S. Giakoumis was showcased at the museum. Within the display cases are badges and uniforms of Epirote soldiers and the Americanized Greek doughboys.
“This exhibit, as it is together, doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. You can see relics when you go into the war museum in Athens, but nothing about Greek-American contribution to the Balkan Wars,” he said.
Giakoumis, who conducted extensive research on the topic for his book “The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913”, collected materials to be displayed in the museum to elucidate the history of how Epirus and the Americanized Greeks played a part in the often overlooked war. “When I finished [the book], it gave me the wherewithal to be able to do something like this temporary exhibit. So I thought that that might be something that the museum would be interested in,” the curator explained.
The museum is a part of the Society of Epirotes Anagennesis which strives to unite Epirotes in the diaspora. As the museum turns 20 years old this year, the staff has set their sights on expanding collections and their reach in the community. They hope the museum will not just pose as an inspirational place to learn about Epirus, but provide a learning space for anyone to enjoy. But that starts with people noticing the museum’s existence.
“To say, ‘Hey, we’re here. Here we are, we exist.’ So that’s what we’re working on to constantly keep people engaged by showing them new things every year so we can keep ourselves relevant,” Kantlis explained. With future plans of an exhibit dedicated to Alexander the Great, the deep and long lasting history of the Epirus region provides many outlets to explore and to be learned from.
Another way Kantlis believes could garner interest for the museum is the library. The library is a valued resource for those interested in learning about Epirus and contains a plethora of materials about history and culture. Its collection can help students or anyone who is seeking out information about the region and the museum hopes that more people will utilize it.
“We’re hoping maybe we can expand the library and somehow make it relevant for students who are going to be historians, archaeologists or history majors or something that wants to deal with maybe northern Greece or pieces of Greece that we have. They get certain relative material that nobody else has, that you have to come here for,” she went on to say.
The importance of the Heritage Museum of Epirus lies in the fact that it is representative of the Greek Diaspora at large. Those who immigrated to the United States and formed organizations to keep their culture and attachment to Greece alive. Their legacy is shown in the efforts to create a space like this for future generations to enjoy and be proud of.
“This museum has a direct connection to the diaspora Greeks. So I think that’s very important to keep that. That should give it a context to the diaspora Greeks and their heritage, which is our heritage,” Giakoumis explained.
What sets the museum apart from others is how it is a grassroots effort to make sure the culture and history is maintained and displayed. Every piece has a story and legacy. Whether a wedding dress or traditional tools, they came from someone who wanted to take a piece of Epirus with them when they came to the United States. And now, will be immortalized within the museum.
“These costumes that we see have been donated by the Greeks that are now living here. So there is a direct link between not only the old country, but the fact that these are people who came to the United States. They immigrated here, they were living here, and now their families are here,” Giakoumis continued.
The Heritage Museum of Epirus knows the disconnection to one’s roots grows as the years go by, yet it is combatting this by extending out to the younger generations with field trips with local Greek schools and other organizations. The staff hopes a renewed effort and investment in the museum will bring anyone who is interested in using the space for events and learning opportunities through tours.
“They [future generations] need to be proud of their heritage. They need to know that they have some type of history. And that’s what this museum shows. That we’re proud of our history and we should never forget it,” Kantlis explained.
The museum is located at 25-14 Broadway, Astoria, New York
For more information about the Heritage Museum of Epirus and to schedule an appointment, their phone number is 718-274-3753 and their email EpirusMuseumAstoria@gmail.com.