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Contact: Tom Parisi, Office of Public Affairs
December 15, 2005
DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University will collaborate with the Cambodian American Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago to produce several new museum exhibits and a collection of oral histories from survivors of the killing fields who now live in Illinois.
The Henry Luce Foundation in New York has awarded a grant of $115,000 over three years to NIU in support of the Cambodia cultural heritage project, directed by NIU’s Judy Ledgerwood and Ann Wright-Parsons.
Ledgerwood is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Cambodia, while Wright-Parsons directs the Anthropology Museum at NIU and also is a specialist in Southeast Asia.
"This project will improve the collections of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum in Chicago and our museum at NIU, while at the same time providing unique opportunities for student involvement," said Ledgerwood, who serves as chair of the NIU Department of Anthropology.
"The biggest beneficiary of the work, however, stands to be the Cambodian community in the Chicago region and beyond," she added.
About 5,000 Cambodians live in Chicago. Last year, after decades of planning and fundraising, the Cambodian Association of Illinois opened the Cambodian American Heritage Museum on Chicago’s North Side at 2831 W. Lawrence Ave.
The museum is home to the Killing Fields Memorial, comprised of 80 glass columns, each representing 25,000 lives lost in the killing fields, a term popularized by a 1984 movie on the topic. Led by Pol Pot, the infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge, the genocide claimed the lives of about 2 million Cambodians between the years of 1975 and 1979.
The names of about 1,500 victims, most of whom were relatives and friends of Cambodians now living in Illinois, are etched on the glass columns. Leon Lim, chairperson of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum, said the oral histories exhibit will be designed to complement the existing memorial.
"The stories of the survivors need to be documented as soon as possible because these folks are getting older and they are the essential primary sources for the truth," Lim said.
Under the direction of Ledgerwood, NIU graduate students will be enlisted to work with museum volunteers on collecting the stories of survivors of the killing fields. The oral histories exhibit will debut in 2008.
Also as part of the project, NIU’s Wright-Parsons and a representative from the Cambodian American Heritage Museum will travel to Cambodia next year to purchase artifacts that will bolster the collections of both institutions.
The Chicago museum will concentrate on acquiring icons from the fine arts, including paintings, sculpture and wood and stone carvings. NIU, which has a strong Southeast Asian textile collection, will focus on the acquisition of fine silk weavings used in Cambodian ceremonial life, as well as clothing from everyday life, such as skirts, sarongs, shoulder wraps and baby carriers. The Anthropology Museum also hopes to acquire a loom and the implements used in all aspects of textile production – from processing the raw material to the weaving of the finished product.
Wright-Parsons, who teaches a course in museum studies, and Bill Westerman, the director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum, will provide training to staff of the Chicago museum in cataloging and storage. Wright-Parsons’ NIU students next fall will work in cooperation with the Chicago museum staff on documenting the new pieces in preparation for the exhibits, which will be unveiled in 2007.
"This partnership is a nice fit in so many ways," Wright-Parsons said. "Not only will our students receive wonderful experiences learning about the material culture of Cambodia, but they will experience working with staff from another museum. This project also serves to reaffirm the university’s mission of outreach to the region."
NIU has long had a research emphasis in Southeast Asia. The university’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, founded in 1963, is the second oldest of its kind nationwide and one of seven National Resource Centers for Southeast Asian studies.
The Henry Luce Foundation (www.hluce.org) was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. The foundation supports programs focusing on American art, East Asia, higher education, theology, public policy and the environment, and women in science and engineering.