2015 Operation Babylift exhibition at the Presidio (Photo/adoptionmusuemproject.org)
2015 Operation Babylift exhibition at the Presidio (Photo/adoptionmusuemproject.org)

Q&A: She dreams of an adoption museum

Name: Laura Callen
Age: 47
Residence: Kensington
Profession: Founder/director, Adoption Museum Project

J.: Your dream is a museum where people can learn about all aspects of adoption. Though you have no building yet, the Adoption Museum Project offers collaborative exhibitions, oral histories, performances, art and conversations in a variety of spaces. What is your goal for the project?

picture of Laura Callen in a pink shirt and green jacket
Laura Callen

Laura Callen: Adoption is something that we do not fully understand and we don’t know how to talk about it. Our intention is to create work — and eventually, a museum — that will change how we think about adoption and how we practice it.

How does our society think about adoption?

The dominant narrative that our society holds fiercely to is one that adoption is a win-win-win, a wholly positive practice. Though there is an extraordinary diversity of experiences, the reality is that adoption always begins with loss. That doesn’t mean that people can’t go on to live good lives and be happy, but we have to look at the full reality.

With the Presidio Trust, in 2015 the Adoption Museum Project co-curated a year-long exhibition and program series on Operation Babylift, when more than 1,500 children were transferred here in 1975 from Vietnam for adoption. More than 33,000 people visited the exhibition.

What projects are you working on now?

At the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival in November, we co-presented the film “Khoya” (Lost), a fictional story about an adoptee who returns to India to search for his birth family. We are using that as the first piece of a larger project that explores how film can be used a jumping-off point for conversations about adoption.

Can you talk more about the film project?

Two other films will be part of it. A new film, “Lion,” is a true story based on the life of an Indian man who was adopted by an Australian family, and early next year, a documentary about another Indian adoptee is due out. We are looking at ways to invite people to watch these films and see how we can facilitate discussions.

Adoption is a common story line in movies, on TV and in books. As you say, most people don’t think about it, but you do. Were you adopted?

I am an adopted person, and growing up in my house in Michigan, adoption was not something that was OK to talk about. That wasn’t for any intentional or malicious reason; that’s just the way my family held it. 

Were you brought up Jewish?

I grew up Catholic. I converted to Judaism as an adult, because Judaism is a tradition and a faith that aligns with who I am. I am a member of Congregation Netivot Shalom and I’ve been talking with Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman at Berkeley Hillel about partnering on a program for anyone interested in taking a passage from Torah and studying it through the lens of adoption.

What was the genesis of the Adoption Museum Project?

The hokey-sounding truth is that in 2011, I had a daydream. I saw myself in the garden of a museum with my mother — that’s how I refer to my adoptive mother — and also with my birth mother. It was the first time we had ever been together, and though it was not all that comfortable, it was so good! 

What happened next in the daydream?

I saw me, walking with my kids up some stairs into the museum and moving through the lobby. It was a very poignant, positive and exciting moment, to bring my kids to this place to learn about this part of who I am, this part of my experience and also their experience. Afterward, I remember thinking, “That is so interesting!”

What happened next?

I spent two years with a paragraph describing my idea for a museum, and I had conversations with hundreds of people, including museum professionals, artists and entrepreneurs. Four years ago, I gave the idea a name, got nonprofit status and created a leadership team and advisory team.

How big is the organization today?

We have a staff of one — me. Intersection for the Arts handles our financial accounting and reporting, and we are funded by individual donations, grants and earned revenue.

What keeps you on this path?

There is no public place or space for anybody interested in learning about or exploring adoption that says — whoever you are or wherever you are in your understanding — come to this space. The Adoption Museum Project is a generative, hopeful project.

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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.