Eleni Papavasileiou’s journey to becoming a Senior Curator at the Jewish Museum of Australia

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“I think that once you find something that is yours and you care for it, it doesn’t feel like a chore. Follow that path with excitement and enthusiasm and things will start happening naturally.”

These words belong to Eleni Papavasileiou – the Senior Curator and Collection Manager of the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne.

Born and raised in Athens, Eleni says her fascination with museums was born of an “itch” to explore what the world of arts and culture had to offer.

“I guess 25 or so years ago there was something itching in me, telling me that ‘you must see, you must learn, go to the museums and galleries of the world and see what is happening out there’,” she tells The Greek Herald.

“I wanted to experience all of that firsthand.”

It’s an itch that saw Eleni at 18 years of age leave Greece for the United Kingdom to complete her Bachelor of Photography and Visual Communication at Birmingham City University. It was here she found herself continuing her travels abroad and “completely absorbed by the museum sector.”

“It was through volunteering and short-term contract jobs that I decided this was the sector I’d like to invest more of my learning and time in,” she says.

Eleni Papavasileiou working in Bristol, England at the Brunel Institute. Photo: Supplied to TGH

Three years after doing an exchange in the United States, Eleni moved to Sweden in 2002, enrolling in her Master’s in International Museum Studies at the University of Gothenburg.

When I ask how her parents coped with their daughter travelling the world, she lets out a laugh: “Like many Greek parents, they supported me because you’re allowed to go out and venture when it’s for education.”

Speaking about her time at the Swedish University, she said: “There was a component within that course to undertake an internship within a museum from anywhere around the world.”

“I completed mine in Sydney in 2004 and that was my first contact with Australia.”

This contact would grow further upon returning to Europe where Eleni met her partner Darren, who is from Western Australia. The couple share a son, Artem, who was born in the United Kingdom.

Eleni Papavasileiou pictured with partner Darren and son Artem. Photo: Supplied to TGH

“He loves that he has three passports,” Eleni says.

“It’s amazing to see that shift in younger people accepting diversity in their identity and not trying to conceal it or being embarrassed by it.”

The overlap between Greek and Jewish history

Moving to Melbourne in 2017 with her partner and son, Eleni secured her role as the Senior Curator and Collection Manager at the Jewish Museum of Australia.

Pointing to the mission of the museum, Eleni says: “Our remits is to illuminate Jewish life and to really share stories that speak to the Australian Jewish experience from the very first Jewish people that came to this country from the First Fleet in 1788 up until today.”

Senior Curator and Collection Manager of the Jewish Museum of Australia, Eleni Papavasileiou. Photo: Supplied to TGH

While the curatorial role requires Eleni to research, handle and take care of museum objects, it is also one that offers her tangible points of connection to her Greek heritage.

“One of our galleries looks at the span of Jewish history and culture dating back to ancient times so there’s that obvious cross-over,” she says.

“We also have a couple of objects from Greek Jews from Thessaloniki who had to leave Greece during the second world war and found themselves in Australia. It’s really beautiful to find those traces in Australia.”

Being part of the conversation

Speaking more broadly on the role of museums in the digital age, Eleni says: “There are so many other ways people receive information nowadays but certainly what we offer is an experience.”

“An experience that allows visitors to connect with a real artefact from a real time and place and really bring them into that world. I think that’s where the value of the sector and the magic of the experience lies,” she adds.

Eleni Papavasileiou speaking at the opening of ‘HELMUT NEWTON IN FOCUS’ at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Photo: Marie Luise Skibbe

As to her advice for women following a similar professional path, she says: “It’s important to be true to yourself.”

“Ultimately it’s our knowledge, how we are with people and how good we are at our job that counts. You have to do your very best and sometimes even better than your male counterpart, which is unfortunate.

“Be there, be present and be part of the conversation.”

READ MORE: NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO, Vic Alhadeff, on his passion for Greek causes

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