I’ve known since my first visit to Melbourne, Australia, that it has a large Greek community because we ate in a Greek restaurant and the passionate family that owned it wanted Ruth and me to admire the food and know about their heritage. That’s why on our recent visit to Melbourne we decided to visit the Hellenic Museum at 280 William Street. I hadn’t been aware of it before because it doesn’t get a lot of attention in local tourist info.
The Hellenic Museum is in the CBD. A tram took us almost to its door, which once was the entrance to the Royal Mint Building. The rooms now full of Greek treasures were once mint offices. This venerable, 19th century Renaissance Revival landmark makes a fine 2-level museum and has a very welcoming staff and lots of activities attracting the local Greek community. If you speak Greek, you’ll probably get a chance to use it.
There are currently 400,000 people of Greek ancestry living in Australia. About ¼ of them were born in Greece. Most of them came to Australia in 3 waves. The 1st wave causing exodus was World War II. The Greek Civil War followed it from 1946 to 1949 and brought even more. During it, Greek Communists tried without success to gain control. The final wave was caused by the ongoing financial crisis caused partially by this country’s participation in the EU. Up to 20,000 Greek nationals have come to Australia since 2013.
Melbourne is where the Australian Greek community is most established. Many people of Greek ancestry live in the Oakleigh neighborhood. A census released in 2017 said that 162,103 people in this city claim Greek roots.
Most of the exhibits in the Hellenic Museum are temporary. That’s what makes “Gods, Myths & Mortals” something of an exception. This museum partnered with Athen’s Benaki Museum to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and the Benaki sent this very special exhibit to be displayed at the Hellenic until 2024. Anyone interested in Greek civilization has plenty of time to see this truly excellent show that celebrates 8,000 years of Greek civilization. The ancient myrtle wreath on loan from the Benaki has become the star of this exhibit. It is stunning. Gold wreaths like it look as if they were removed from actual myrtles, aromatic evergreens native to the Mediterranean. Such wreaths have been found in royal tombs in Macedonia, Asia Minor, and southern Italy. The crowning of the dead with such a wreath signified that the person was worthy of being rewarded with eternal life. I also much admired the 19th century breast ornament from Thessaly made of silver and many glass stones.
The driving force behind the Hellenic Museum is Spiros Stamoulis. Born in Athens, Spiros emigrated to Australia and fell in love with Melbourne, his new home. He became a wrestling champion and founded a successful soft drink company, Gold Medal Drink. His entire life was not marked with success and happiness. When she was 24, his beautiful 24-year-old daughter was killed in an auto accident in Greece.