Meet Sarah – A KVML Donor/Partner Profile

Meet Sarah Halter, the executive director of the Indiana Medical History Museum in Indianapolis. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) first worked with Sarah a few years ago when she volunteered to serve on our Year of Vonnegut planning committee. We loved her ideas and creativity. Since then, we’ve partnered on a number of special projects, including participating in a spooky Frankenstein read-a-thon in partnership with Indiana Humanities. Sarah is a big Vonnegut fan and has also been a generous financial donor over the years. Recently, she sat down with us to explain why Vonnegut and KVML hold special places in her heart.

Hi, Sarah! Thanks for joining us! First, tell us the Indiana Medical History Museum and what you do there.

The Indiana Medical History Museum is a magical place. We are in the old pathology building, part of the the former Central State Hospital, which opened in 1896 as a cutting-edge research facility dedicated to studying and finding treatments for physical causes of mental diseases and disorders. The goal was to use science to improve lives and outcomes and even to prevent the need for institutionalization in the future. The building closed as a lab in 1968. Within a year, it was saved from demolition and reopened as a museum with many of the original furnishings, equipment, specimens, and records still in tact. It’s a historian’s dream, and for visitors, it’s an amazingly authentic and immersive experience. The legacy of the hospital is complicated at best. There was a lot of good—it’s important to remember that, too. But often it’s ugliness is heart-breaking. The building, in many ways, represents hope and healing, trust in science, and Indiana’s long-held reputation as a leader in medical research and education.

It’s great fun to step back in time at the clinical chemistry lab at the Indiana Medical History Museum.

I started working at the museum in 2007 as an intern while in grad school. I loved the building and the history. And I loved the people I worked with there. When my internship ended, I just couldn’t leave. I kept coming back. I volunteered my time at first, and then a few months later, I was hired. I’ve been there in various capacities ever since.

In mid 2014, my predecessor retired, and I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to lead the organization. We have grown a lot in recent years, and there is always plenty to do. Every day is different, and I have never once been bored at work.

Why and in what ways has/does the Indiana Medical History Museum collaborate with KVML?

IMHM worked with KVML in 2018 to bring Nanette Vonnegut to Indy for a program called Lonesome at Home: The Vonnegut Family and Mental Health. Nanny read a short memoir titled “I Remember Jones,” written by her maternal grandmother Riah Cox, who spent time at Central State Hospital twice, once in the 1940s and once in the 1950s. Nanny shared some of her wonderful artwork, including a portrait of Riah.

I have also happily served on a couple of KVML planning committees with KVML CEO and founder Julia Whitehead and other staff and community partners for various programming and events like Night of Vonnegut and Year of Vonnegut In addition to my work at IMHM, I am vice president of the League of Women Voters of Indianapolis, and issues of civic engagement and freedom of speech are very important to me. There are a lot of connections and parallels with Vonnegut and KVML that bring many different aspects of my professional and personal life together. These experiences have always been very rewarding.

Why do you personally support KVML?

I am a big Vonnegut fan; I have been since high school. I had an amazing history and literature teacher (Ray Brown!) who introduced me to Vonnegut’s work. Every time I reread a novel or a story, I see it a little differently than I did before. I notice new things or have had new experiences with which to compare. Vonnegut’s work feels more important now than ever.

I also appreciate KVML’s championing of freedom of speech and free thinking. I have been especially impressed with their recent work bringing awareness to the issues of mental health and mental health care. It’s such important work. And if something is important to me, it’s important for me to support related efforts any way I can, whether it’s helping out with a program or supporting the organization financially.

Why do you think a library/museum dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut and his ideals is important to the local community and other communities around the world? 

Freedom of expression and common decency are essential to any individual, any family, any community, and any nation. Anyone who says otherwise, whether in word or in deed, is not to be trusted or taken seriously. And the two must go together; one doesn’t have the effect it should without the other.

Do you have a favorite Vonnegut quote or a Vonnegut quote that’s fitting for the times we are living in now?

Oh, man. I have a lot of them, and many are fitting, I imagine. Can I pick two?

1) “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” (Player Piano)

2) “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would just like to thank all of you at KVML for being good friends and good community partners and for all you do. I know from experience that with a small staff and somewhat limited resources, you have to be very committed, resourceful, and relentless to accomplish what you guys have accomplished in such a short time. It’s wonderful to see that kind of passion and dedication to such an important cause.

Thanks, Sarah, and thanks for all you do. We’re so happy to partner with you and the Indiana Medical History Museum!

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