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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 8, 2007
DeKalb, Ill. — Amy Levin loves museums, but it is not the sprawling, columned variety that most pique her curiosity.
“I adore small and quirky museums—you might say I collect them,” says Levin, a Northern Illinois University English professor whose new book underscores the importance of such institutions.
“Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities” (AltaMira Press) assembles a collection of essays that provide a window into museums that are slightly off the beaten path.
The museums range from the New York East Side Tenement Museum and the Freakatorium in New York City to Old Cowtown in Wichita, the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Girard Collection of Folk Art in Santa Fe.
Defining our sense of history
Levin serves as editor of “Defining Memory.” As the title suggests, the book examines how local museums have both shaped and been shaped by evolving community values and sense of history.
“I noticed that while there are many books on major museums and museum theory, there is little in print on small museums,” Levin says. “That was the genesis of the book.”
Levin has herself visited dozens of local museums across the country, including such Illinois institutions as the Ellwood House in DeKalb and the Geneva History Center. The Ellwood House is mentioned in the book, and the Geneva museum is featured in an essay written by Elizabeth Vallance of Indiana University.
The editor and her contributors argue that local museums play a key role in defining America’s self-identity and should be studied as seriously as more national institutions. NIU Distinguished Research Professor David Kyvig, an expert in 20th century American history, wrote the book’s foreword.
“Amy’s collection of stories offers insight into the diversity of activities going on in local museums,” says Kyvig, who separately has authored a series of guides to local history research. “I hope her book will be an inspiration to people across the country trying to improve the quality of local museum practice. Some of them are achieving great success, often with few resources and against daunting restraints. They are engaged in an important effort to preserve and explain American grassroots culture.”
9/11's impact on local museums
While Levin serves as the book’s editor, she also wrote chapters on museums in lower Manhattan, including on the Museum of American Financial History, the Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian and the New York Police Museum. She thought she had completed her writing in early September 2001.
“Within ten days, the museums I wrote about were closed, at the center of the worst terrorist attacks in American history,” Levin says. “Several years later, I was given additional funds to go back and write the following chapter, on how the museums coped with and presented 9/11.”
Levin has been teaching at NIU since 1995. She also coordinates NIU’s Museum Studies program and serves as director of the university’s Women’s Studies program. More information on her new book is available at www.altamirapress.com.