Catherine Raymond Presidential Engagement Professor 2017 Recipient
Catherine Raymond is an art historian who specializes in Southeast Asia and serves as director of NIU’s prestigious Center for Burma Studies. Burma (also known as Myanmar) has suffered through 50 years of military dictatorship and its libraries, universities, museums and other cultural institutions have languished. Beginning in 2012, Burma’s rulers began to reopen society and Catherine Raymond leaped at the opportunity. Through tireless fundraising and partnership creation, Raymond donated books to Burmese libraries, trained librarians and museum curators and negotiated agreements with Burmese universities to allow valuable knowledge exchanges.
In fact, Raymond's work helped create the actual normalization of relations with Burma and its educational institutions. In 2011, she played a central role in the return to Burma of a stolen 11th century Buddha stone image. That triumph, along with other work to eliminate illicit trafficking in antiquities, earned Raymond and NIU the trust of Burmese leaders: the following year, Burma lifted its ban and allowed ten American universities (including NIU) to resume visits to Burmese universities. And when Burma began to allow its own scholars to visit western universities, NIU was the first institution allowed to host Burmese professors.
"The Center for Burma Studies has played a significant role in rebuilding the Myanmar education system and that is largely due to the work of Catherine Raymond," wrote former student Nay Yan Oo. "She is always working with people and seeking out their knowledge, not just sharing hers."
Raymond's creation of the International Burma Studies Conference, soon entering its 10th year and drawing 200-300 scholars per year, has also helped cement NIU’s reputation as the global center for Burma studies.
"Raymond has internationally expanded knowledge, intensified professional and diplomatic relations and brought great credit to NIU through her leadership and innovations," wrote David Steinberg, distinguished professor emeritus of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. "She has built a center that is the only such focus on Burma studies in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a museum of world-class stature."
Raymond’s students have strong praise for the way their professor involves them in her scholarship and artistry as well. "She has helped me discover my own interest in art history and has even taken me with her on trips to Burma,” said graduate student Carmin Berchiolly. "She is selfless in her commitments and teaches all of us to be equally generous about sharing knowledge."
John Brandon, senior director of the Asia Foundation, says Raymond helped his organization re-establish a physical presence in Burma after a 51-year absence.
"Universities there were closed for more than a decade and the whole system suffered from isolation, stagnation and repression,” Brandon wrote. "I have heard from so many people there how much they admire Catherine Raymond. When she curated an exhibit called "The Buddhist Art of Myanmar," it was the first time many of the art pieces had ever been allowed to leave Burma. The New York Times called the exhibit, 'quietly majestic.'"
When she isn't curating exhibits, editing the Journal of Burma Studies and practicing internal diplomacy, Raymond takes community engagement to new levels closer to home. She has, for example, helped other Illinois universities with no understanding of Burma to mentor their own students from that region. She also works with churches and other institutions to help them assist more than 3,000 Burmese refugees who have settled in northern Illinois.
Ph.D. candidate Thomas Rhoden calls Raymond "a superb mentor and great friend to the local community." "Her story is so inspiring;” Rhoden said, "a French woman who specializes in Burmese art history, now engaged with our surrounding community to a degree that most of us originally from this area fail to live up to."