Australia Expressing ourselves
Torrens Parade Ground,
Victoria Drive, Adelaide SA 5000
‘Expressing ourselves’: creating a Deaf exhibition, Corinne Ball, Curator, Migration Museum, 2020
"In September 2020 the History Trust of South Australia’s Migration Museum was proud to welcome over a hundred members of the South Australian Deaf community to the opening of the community-driven exhibition Expressing ourselves: being Deaf in SA in our Forum gallery.
This opening was the culmination of two years of relationship building, negotiation, discovery, learning and hard work on the part of the Deaf exhibition development committee and Migration Museum curators. How and why did this exhibition come about, and what did we learn as museum professionals along the way?
Working with communities has been central to museological and historical practice at the Migration Museum. Key to this has been our Forum community gallery, which has hosted over 120 different communities over the last thirty years. The Forum provides a space where community groups mount their own exhibitions within the institutional frame of the Migration Museum, while providing a community perspective. In recent years we have been focusing our work with communities or groups which are emerging, or which have previously been under-represented. Communities work with curators to identify the message they wish to transmit and the stories they wish to tell and curators aid in organising design, media, and presentation, as well as co-creating public programs to increase community reach.
Before that first meeting [with Deaf with community members who might be interested in developing a Forum exhibition] my (somewhat reductive and naive) thought was that, similar to the Deaf exhibitions overseas mentioned above, the Forum exhibition might be about Auslan and its role in Deaf life.
As a hearing person this made sense to me and seemed to fit with the Forum as a place where many linguistically diverse groups have been represented.
However, at the first meeting, the group, comprising several Deaf community members in the 50+ bracket, indicated that they had quite different ideas for an exhibition. They had a wealth of knowledge and information they wanted to share about how the Deaf community had been formed in South Australia, their ‘pioneers and personalities’, and about activism in the community surrounding the formation and continuation of the Deaf Club.
Being able to present this important Deaf history to a predominantly hearing audience was a big deal: as Migration Museum Director Mandy Paul has said, for community groups, particularly those who have come from a position of marginalisation, seeing themselves represented in a state institution is often profoundly validating. Thus, I had to truly understand and digest that while Auslan is a big part of Deaf identity, of course it’s the people, relationships, and personal histories that make Deaf culture, and make Deaf culture significant to both a Deaf and hearing audience."
Gradually the exhibition took shape with a message that the Deaf community in SA has been active, connected, supportive, and self-directed for over 150 years.
In common with many previous Forum displays, school days, sport, work and play were featured, as well as a video timeline which told the 130-year journey of the Deaf Club.
Some video content, borrowed with permission from an existing web series on Deaf culture, was delivered in Auslan, with captions and an added audio track — a first for us in the museum. This configuration of Auslan-first delivery is more accessible and respectful for people whose first language is Auslan, and is not yet general practice in many museums.
For the community and the museum the benefits have far surpassed the financial and human resources invested. Partnering with Deaf Can:Do to host their annual Deaf Community Day at the exhibition launch helped draw over a hundred community members for the event, many of whom had not previously visited the museum.
They were delighted to see their history on view, to recognise faces, and to share their own stories. For the museum, this was our first public program of any scale since the start of COVID-19, so this was a big day for all of us. Committee members gave tours of the display to their friends, family, and peers in Auslan, running at capacity with 16 tours across the afternoon. One wrote afterwards that ‘I had difficulty pulling them out the room as they wanted to stay there longer than the agreed 15 mins tour!’
Deaf knowledge, community, and activism were represented in the exhibition