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Stephen Lang, Asian Section

What do you do at the Penn Museum?

My title is Keeper of the Asian section, it’s a bit antiquated but I like it. My main responsibility is providing access to the collections so that students, professors, researchers, artists, and the general public can enjoy them. I also do general collections management activities like rearranging objects in storage, bringing them to conservation and the photo studio, making sure everything is labeled correctly and working on data clean-up projects in our database. Occasionally, I get to bring objects to other museums that have borrowed them for an exhibit.


What’s your favorite part of your job?

That’s hard to say. I think it’s always finding something new and interesting in the storage rooms. We have about 25,000 objects in the Asian section so I am always finding something I haven’t seen before that catches me by surprise.


How did you begin working at the Museum?

I studied Anthropology at Cornell University with a focus on East Asia and worked at their museum as an intern in the Asian section. I learned a good deal about taking care of collections and database work as well as curating exhibits and writing labels. When the Keeper position opened at the Penn Museum it seemed like a perfect fit for my interests and background, combining East Asian material culture with museology and education.


What previous jobs have you removed from your resume?

I worked in a Superfresh bakery for a summer. It was nice to be somewhere cold for those months. I had to bring the dough from the freezer to the bakery every morning and do the set up for that day’s freshly baked cookies and rolls. Occasionally I would have to write Happy Birthday on a cake for someone. I was terrible! I’m sure half of them ended up on or with crying children hovering over them.


What do you do for fun?

I like to paint. I’m not particularly good, but I can fake it. I painted a Takashi Murakami painting which saved me thousands of dollars getting a print made or buying an original. It’s pretty big, something like 3ft x 4ft, it took me six months working a little at a time but I finally finished it. It’s hanging in my apartment now. I also like to do karaoke, preferably among friends and in a private booth. I studied abroad in Japan and found out about private booth karaoke and it changed my life. Luckily there are some great places in Philadelphia and New York City when I need to get my fix.


What is your favorite word and why?

Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I’d say maybe chotto in Japanese. It has so many meanings. My favorite is when it is used to avoid direct criticism.


For instance:

How do you like my new dress?



It allows for you to dislike something or say something negative about a situation or offer without being very direct about it. We need a word like this in English!


What is your favorite object in the Museum?

It’s hard to choose just one. I really like the gilt-bronze Maitreya Buddha in the Buddhism Gallery. It gets me every time I look at it. The drapery is just fantastic and the piece just exudes quality craftsmanship. There is also a serenity to it that has a very calming effect. I like objects that have this kind of power. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, so you can imagine worshippers looking at this statue and gaining some hope for the future. His hands are in the abhaya mudrā which is meant to dispel fear. Sometimes when I feel a little overwhelmed by work I go to the gallery and check it out, it seems to help.


What is your favorite work story?

There are a lot of good stories. When the Philly Phanatic came that was quite a treat. Seeing him polishing our director’s shoes was a highlight of my career at the museum. I don’t think our director knew what to make of this large, green, puppet getting down on his knees in mock worship. That will stay with me for a while.


What would you do if you weren’t a Keeper?

I’d probably be doing something creative like being an artist of some kind. I always wanted to get into the film industry or just work as a professional artist. It can be tough to find work that is meaningful to you but doesn’t require you to take a vow of poverty to be able to do it. That was always an important part of what I tried to do with my schooling, position myself to be my own boss and care about what is that I am doing on a day to day basis. You can’t ask for more than that.


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Taken on June 3, 2010