An Interview with Adina Langer, Author of Storytelling in Museums
In Storytelling in Museums, editor Adina Langer compiles chapters written by museum professionals from around the world that explore the efficacy and ethics of storytelling in a museum setting. Programming GRA Parker Hilley recently interviewed Langer about what attracted her to the field of museum studies and her thoughts on the future of museums.
How did you get your start in museums?
When I was a little girl, my mother was a pediatrician and would often be on call during the weekends. My dad would take me to museums for our special “Daddy Daughter Days.” We’d go everywhere from presidential homes like Sagamore Hill on Long Island to the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. I don’t even know how many times we visited Colonial Williamsburg for family vacations. I associated museums with playful discovery and deep conversations with my family, and the excitement of seeing and being seen. I remember once, after my brother was born, standing perfectly still in an empty corner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his baby blanket wrapped around my waist and a large-brimmed straw hat on my head trying to see if people would think I was a statue. Still, even with all that, I don’t think I realized that working in a museum could be a job until my junior year of college when I took a fabulous history and memory seminar with Lisa Abend and a wonderful museum studies seminar with Steve Volk. These courses helped me peel back the curtain on museums as a process and a product for people to collectively learn and remember. I wrote my senior history honors thesis on how ideas of sacred and public space enabled people to create national parks out of private property and then applied for a bunch of museum internships after I graduated.
Any advice for someone looking to go into museum studies?
Museum work is great for curious people who enjoy diving deeply into content and then surfacing to share their knowledge and experiences with others. It’s great for people who enjoy building relationships within and across communities. I would emphasize to prospective volunteers and emerging professionals that they can, and should, bring their whole selves to work in museums. What they bring to the work will build the bridges that will anchor museums as vibrant sites for free-choice learning and safe spaces for engaging with complexity now and in the future.
How do you feel about the future of museums and what are some of the changes you’ve already noticed?
When I set out to write and compile Storytelling in Museums, I was very aware of the fraught history of the museum as an institution, with some people claiming that museums are incurably white supremacist or colonialist enterprises. The book is rooted in my optimism for the museum as an institution and in personal observations of the quality and intentions of museum professionals. People in this field are actively trying to right the wrongs of the past and build institutions that preserve our collective heritage while serving the needs of the people and communities of the present. The chapters in the book reflect sincere efforts to diversify narratives while treating storytellers and donors of artifacts and other cultural assets with respect. In a world where we are bombarded with stimulus and encouraged to consume information in soundbites and tweets, museums are places that purposefully slow us down and encourage us to engage deeply with complexity and contradiction. I think that museums are good for our souls. (Check out this blog post for more on this topic.)
So, what is your favorite museum?
This is such a tough question! I’m going to have to go with Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. There’s always something new to see and experience, and it’s a fully immersive environment. (It’s also where I got married 15 years ago, so that certainly helps.) In terms of recent history museum experiences, I was really impressed with the Two Mississippi Museums (Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum) in Jackson, Mississippi when I visited during the Southeastern Museums Conference Annual Meeting in 2018.