Melbourne Museum celebrates Victoria’s rich Hellenic heritage with new exhibition

After almost 80 years, a blanket handmade by a then-teenage Effie Spiropoulos still looks as bright as ever.

It’s a good thing — creating the masterpiece was arduous work, carried out by the light of an oil lamp in a small village in Greece.

Effie’s daughter Stavroula Spiropoulos said the wool was spun locally, and the dyes depended on what was at hand, including “beetroot, onion or walnut husk”.

If Effie wanted a particular color she couldn’t make herself, she might make the three-hour walk to the nearest town to try and source it.

Only able to weave a piece of cloth as wide as the loom it was on, Effie made two pieces before carefully stitching them together as part of her dowry.

A woman's hands clasped over a red and blue blanket
Effie Spiropoulos sourced all the materials for the blanket herself as a teenager in Greece.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

When the family of nine migrated to Australia in the 1960s and settled in the Melbourne suburb of Fawkner, the priceless family heirloom came with them.

Stavroula, one of Effie’s seven children, said it had been carefully looked after ever since.

“Every year with my mum and my sisters we’d air it out and we’d look at it and we’d wonder how this lovely lady with hardly anything from the shops created this,” she said.

Open Horizons exhibition to reflect rich tradition of Greek culture

A photo of Effie holding the vivid red covering in her Fawkner garden is now on display as part of the museum’s Open Horizons exhibition, and the blanket itself has been donated to the museum as well.

A woman holding a red and blue blanket
This photo of Effie joins dozens of artifacts reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Greece and Greek people.(Supplied)

More than 40 ancient Greek sculptures, bronzes and other precious items — such as a 2,500-year-old sphinx which had never before left Greece, and a colossal head of Zeus standing three-quarters of a meter high — are on show, highlighting themes of culture and connection.

Organizers said the exhibition was scheduled for last year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence, but COVID saw those plans scrapped.

Now that it’s open, they are hopeful that by looking to the past, people can have a better understanding of the present.

“There’s a lot of connection that can be found between people, whether that’s 50 years ago, or whether that’s 3,000 years ago,” Museums Victoria director of exhibitions and audience experiences Linda Spruer said.

Greece’s National Archeology Museum’s director Anna Vasiliki Karapanagiotou said the works “tell us many short histories about ancient Greek journeys around the Mediterranean world”, as well as demonstrating the influence they have had on the country’s culture.

Dr Vasiliki Karapanagiotou said Victoria’s large Greek population made it the natural home for the exhibition.

An old photograpg of a large family
The Spiropoulos family arrived in Australia in 1964 and became immersed in Melbourne’s Greek diaspora.(Supplied)

Australia has the third-largest Greek diaspora in the world, with half of the country’s close to 100,000 Greek-born residents calling Victoria home.

And when officials put a call-out to the local community for photos depicting their own journeys across continents and generations, more than 200 images were sent in.

“We were amazed,” Ms. Spruer said.

“We’ve got a multimedia display at the end of the exhibition where people have submitted images, and we have themed them across the areas of love, life and work.”

A family with Greece ‘in every fiber of our being’

Now nearing 102, Effie’s life has spanned multiple wars, pandemics and the Great Depression.

Stavroula said she would often ask her mother to tell her about her youth, “and she’d go ‘Stavroula, all I remember is work. From the moment we get up to the moment we sleep … it was work, work, work’ .”

She credited Melbourne’s burgeoning Greek community with helping to give her and her siblings a place to belong after arriving from Greece in 1964.

Four women gathered around a red woven blanket
Effie Spiropoulos will celebrate her 102nd birthday in June.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

“At school … they couldn’t say my name, Stavroula Spiropoulos, it was all Jones and Smith, they tried to change my name,” she said.

“We stuck together because we couldn’t understand… we had a wonderful community.”

Despite the difficulties, Stavroula said her mother thrived in her new life — without forgetting where she came from.

“She’s got 22 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren and they all call Fawkner home because that is the heart that draws us there.

“As long as mum is there, that’s where we all go.”

The Spiropoulos family said they were proud to contribute their own piece of very personal Greek-Australian history, donating their mother’s blanket to the Melbourne Museum’s collection.

“It’s survived because when you have very little you treasure what you have,” she said.

“It gave me great joy that I could share it with the world and mum’s legacy could live on.”


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