My Emigration & Diaspora Museum Project—A Personal Reflection

I met Manos Haritatos in 1978 when I was working on my master’s thesis on the left-wing uprising among the Greek armed forces that were stationed in British-controlled Egypt during WWII. I was already planning my doctoral dissertation on the Greek community in Egypt in the period immediately preceding the war. We had family ties forged in Alexandria which went back decades before the exodus of the Greeks in the 1960s. Manos collected Greek books published in Egypt, which he kept in an apartment in Pangrati which was devoted entirely to his collection, and which next to the hundreds of books included maps, newspapers, magazines, photographs and items such as commercial products either with Greek brand names or those manufactured by Greek-owned companies. Examples are cigarette boxes, bottles of soft and alcoholic drinks, and food products. A few years later, Manos’ personal collection, which had grown to include similar items from Greece itself, was transformed into the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive. Known by its Greek acronym as E.L.I.A., it was housed in a refurbished neoclassical building in the Plaka district in Athens. It quickly became a destination for researchers while it began a robust program of exhibitions and publications gaining widespread respect among the Athenian highbrow elite.

All this may seem an odd introduction to an essay discussing my plan to create an emigration and diaspora museum in Athens. The emigration aspect would showcase the exodus of Greeks to destinations abroad, including their journeys and what they took with them, and the diaspora aspect would highlight the lives of the early settlers and that of their children and grandchildren who were born abroad. It has been my goal ever since I retired from Haverford College, in 2022, and moved back to Greece. I feel that emigration and diaspora museums can bring the homeland closer to the diaspora and vice versa much more effectively than official announcements and platitudes which we frequently hear from both sides of the Atlantic. My initial idea was not driven by an academic plan but instead inspired by Manos’ example of going from collector to becoming a cultural institution. Thus, I am using my collection of Greek American items that range from campaign buttons featuring Greek American political candidates to menus of Greek-owned diners as the core of the future museum.

At the risk of sounding even more amateurish, I have to admit that I switched from thinking about the projected museum to actually doing something about it after mentioning my plan during the question-and-answer session of a zoom presentation on the 1821 Greek revolution in the Spring of 2021. One of the attendees contacted me the next day saying that she could put me in touch with somebody at the Office of the Mayor of Athens who was involved in the Municipality’s administration of empty buildings in the city. Maybe the museum could start from bricks and mortar I thought, though I doubted I would ever get to the Mayor’s Office. But when a meeting was indeed arranged, I realized I had to present some sort of basic plan. I had already identified a museum studies professor at the University of Athens, Marlen Mouliou with whom I met for the purpose of drafting a credible emigration and diaspora museum project proposal.

A key element in the proposal was making the case for such a museum in Athens. Athens, I would argue, is the unofficial capital of the Greek diaspora. Even though emigration was widespread in the provinces rather than the Greek capital, it is Athens which received the large donations from the merchant diaspora in the nineteenth century. Athens was the destination of AHEPA’s annual excursions to Greece, it remains the destination of diaspora delegations that visit Greece from many parts of the globe, and it is in Athens where many diaspora Greeks settle upon their return to the homeland. Of course, other cities in Greece could and should have their own diaspora museums. Thessaloniki and Patra would be such venues for obvious reasons, but smaller regional diaspora museums could also be created. How nice it would be to have a consortium of such museums dotted throughout the country.

In the end nothing came out of the meeting at the Municipality, but Marlen and I established regular contact. In the course of our meetings I felt I was getting private instruction in museum studies. During the 2021-22 academic year I gave a power point presentation of my collection of Greco-Americana to her master’s program class, and she assigned them the task of planning a diaspora museum based on my collection and other materials that were discussed in class. At the end of the semester four groups of students presented their plans. It was quite extraordinary and gratifying to see how practitioners of museum studies can take a group of objects and imagine and build a museum exhibit around them.

In the meantime, I got further encouragement and advice from Angeliki Tsiotinou who is completing her doctoral dissertation on Greek American museums and with whom I also met several times. This was a case of another valuable entry into the world of museum studies. Angeliki is working under the supervision of Professor Matoula Scaltsa who was also very generous in sharing her experiences with the diaspora museum project in Thessaloniki.

One of the things I have learned during this immersion into museum studies is that such a project needs institutional partners. I am therefore initiating contacts and looking forward towards forging partnerships with several modern Greek studies programs in the United States, starting with the program in the California State University in Sacramento, where I am donating a large part of my papers to the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection. I am also planning to involve the major organizations of the Greeks from Egypt that function in Athens. Greek America and the Greeks in Egypt seem to me a realistic core element of a future diaspora museum, representing two of the largest Greek diaspora communities of the modern era.

As the project unfolds with its early stages, I often think of what Manos Haritatos would have done. Greece is a difficult place in which to innovate, one needs political contacts. And as one lawyer reminded me, immediately below the mayors or the government ministers who might readily give their approval therein lies in wait the bureaucrats with their red tape and a labyrinth of often contradictory laws and regulations. Manos succeeded because he possessed a great deal of personal charisma and the savoir faire of a Greek who had grown up in cosmopolitan Alexandria. Beyond the personal motivations I have outlined in this essay and the more academically grounded analyses that appear in response to Yiorgos Anagnostou’s well-conceived and timely invitation for us to reflect on this topic, lies the proverbial elephant in the room, Greek reality. The irony here is obvious. The very conditions that generated emigration threaten to derail museums that commemorate the experiences of the Greeks who left the country. But as the Greeks who stayed behind have learned to do, we too have to try and overcome that reality.

Alexander Kitroeff is Emeritus Professor of History at Haverford College and teaches at College Year in Athens.