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Idea smallChapter 1: Museums Tell Stories

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Deaf Perspectives

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Deaf History

Deaf History

In many ways Deaf Museums are at a disadvantage when you compare them to mainstream Museums.

First, because Deaf history has only been studied for a small number of years. Of course Deaf people and the Deaf community have a long history, but their history was transmitted informally in Deaf clubs and Deaf families. And only within the Deaf community.

In the past, there were no Deaf historians. Hearing historians were not even aware that there was a Deaf community, with its own stories to tell.

"It was only during the past decade that recognition of the importance of preserving Deaf history has emerged. In the main, Deaf heritage, culture and folklore has been passed down from generation to generation via the medium of sign language and fingerspelling. (..) It is also vital that the history of Deaf people is made available to future generations, especially Deaf schoolchildren as part of their history lessons."
A. Murray Holmes, in: Cruel Legacy, an introduction of Deaf people in history, by A.F. Dimmock, 1993

Second, because very few Deaf people wrote books. For a very long time, almost all books written about Deaf people and about sign language were written by hearing people, usually hearing educators.

It was not until the invention of first film and then video that Deaf people could document their language and their history in their own language: a sign language. 


The third reason is that there were, and still are very few Deaf Museum professionals. Most Deaf Museums were and are started and maintained by volunteers. With great enthusiasm, but with little or no access to mainstream Museum skills and expertise. 

As a result, there are few Deaf Museums in Europe. Some of these are at risk, some others have already had to close down in recent years: because volunteers are elderly and about to retire, because Deaf societies, Deaf clubs have closed down, because the buildings of large residential schools for the Deaf are being sold, because most Deaf children are now mainstreamed.

But at the same time, mainstream Museums and Museum professionals are discovering the Deaf community as a minority with its own language and culture. With stories to tell that are important for Deaf people but also for the general public. By working together and by learning from each other, we may yet be able to preserve and share Deaf History and Culture?

"Opening ourselves to the Deaf community, listening to and respecting them as co-creators and experts telling the stories they want told, makes our practice richer, and has ongoing positive effects for the community.

These embryonic relationships hopefully encourage Deaf people to feel welcome in our space — it’s their space too.

For both side, communities and museum professionals, while genuinely, openly and truly committing to working together can be time-consuming, it repays any investment many-fold."

Corinne Ball: ‘Expressing ourselves’: creating a Deaf exhibition", 2020

  • "It was only during the past decade that recognition of the importance of preserving Deaf history has emerged. In the main, Deaf heritage, culture and folklore has been passed down from generation to generation via the medium of sign language and fingerspelling. (..) It is also vital that the history of Deaf people is made available to future generations, especially Deaf schoolchildren as part of their history lessons."

    A. Murray Holmes,  in: Cruel Legacy, an introduction of Deaf people in history, by A.F. Dimmock, 1993

The Stories of Deaf Museums

The Stories of Deaf Museums

What story a Museum wants to tell depends on the objective and the target group (audience) of the Museum. Who will visit the Museum? What will the visitors learn, see, experience?

It also depends on the perspective: Who tells the story and from what perspective? 

In turn, the story determines the selection of artefacts, photos and videos that will be exhibited. And determines the design of the exhibition, and often the location and the budget.

The Deaf Museums in Europe tell different stories. These stories can be located on a line that goes from (almost) for Deaf people only, to (almost) for hearing people only.  Or from 'By and for Deaf People' to 'With Deaf people, for Deaf and hearing people'.


Below you will find some examples.

Deaf Perspectives

Deaf Perspectives

An easy example of how important perspective is, are the stories that different people will tell about Cochlear Implants. Cochlear Implants: a story that can be told from at least 3 different perspectives:

  • A technical perspective: who invented the Cochlear implant, how do they transfer sound, how do they work?
  • A mainstream perspective: Cochlear implants, finally a 'cure' for deafness!
  • A Deaf culture perspective: Cochlear implants are part of a long history of inventions and interventions by hearing professionals, that were made to 'cure' Deaf people. But Deaf people  are not sick, they do not need a 'miracle cure'.

Another example:

Speech training from the perspective of a teacher or a hearing photographer.

And: speech training from the perspective of a Deaf adult, remembering what speech training was like in school:


Brother teachers articulation in front of the class. Inst. for the Deaf, St. Michielsgestel. 1940

Source: https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=urn:gvn:SFA02:1001467

This video was produced by Statped with support from the National Library. Link to project: http://www.acm1.no/orgfortellinger/ In this project, 6 deaf people of different ages met at an author workshop. The result was 19 stories based on self-experienced events, that reflect a bit of how deaf people have lived and are living their lives.

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The British Deaf Museum and Archives

The British Deaf Museum and Archives

The British Deaf Museum was started by the British Deaf History Society and is run by Deaf volunteers. At the moment, it is located at the Manchester Deaf Centre.

The story it tells is the story of the Deaf community in the UK. Its main target group: Deaf people from across the UK. See the interview with Peter Jackson for more information. 

The story that it tells is important for the Deaf community and for Deaf children and their families. But the target group is small, as is the number of visitors.

The museum depends on volunteers and grants for its survival and the future is uncertain. 

Photo of a timeline of Deaf History 

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The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture

The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture

The Norwegian Deaf Museum (NDM) is somewhere in the middle of the line 'for Deaf only' to 'for hearing people only'. But it started out as an exhibition that was mostly for the Deaf community.

The NDM is now part of a mainstream museum, the Trøndelag Folk Museum. It was setup by hearing curators in close cooperation with the local Deaf community.

It is located in the first school for the Deaf in Norway, in Trondheim. This is what Hanna Mellemsether, a hearing curator at the Trøndelag Folk Museum, wrote about the change from a 'Deaf only" Museum to a Museum that is for Deaf and hearing people. And how this has changed the story that the Museum tells:

"NDM started as a private collection in rented locations in the now abandoned School for the Deaf, in Trondheim. Two rooms were filled with hearing-aids, books, photographs and other artefacts mainly from the old school that was shut down in 1991.

The exhibition at that time was of interest to those who had been pupils at deaf schools, or those who knew someone who had been – but not to many outside this narrow group. The primary motivation behind that early phase of the museum was the need to collect and preserve the histories of deaf people from a period that will be forgotten when the last generation, those who lived their formative years in Norway's segregated deaf schools, dies out. " 

Photo of the Dovemuseum

When the Deaf Museum became part of the Trøndelag Folk Museum, the target group and therefore the story (narrative) changed:

"The politicians who, in 2001, decided that the collection should be transferred to Trøndelag Folk Museum, might have intended us to create a small exhibition about the deaf community and the history of the deaf schools in Norway, within the confines of the existing folk museum.

We soon realized, however, that if the Museum of Deaf History and Culture was to become more than an exhibition for a small group of people with specialized interests and experiences, we had to create a much larger project and, at the same time, secure the old school as a site for this development.


An important narrative in the Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture is how a cultural group has emerged and changed its position and identity within Norwegian society.

The museum shows methods, materials and individuals that, in different ways, have contributed to this process. This does not mean that the factual history of how deaf people have lived their lives, how schools and organizations functioned, is unimportant.

In the new exhibition the material history of past life will still be presented as an important part of the memory work of the deaf community. After all, making the deaf community visible is one of our main goals as a museum.

But we also want to address an audience beyond the deaf community, and to raise questions and highlight dilemmas that are relevant to other parts of modern society. Therefore we have chosen to let facts and stories in deaf history throw a critical light on aspects of our shared modern society.

At NDM we have elected to present different (and often sharply conflicting) views and standpoints, not as dogmas, but as something to be reflected upon and discussed with and by the visitors. Our aim is therefore not to tell a true and uncontested story, but to provoke reflection and afterthoughts that may challenge prejudice.

By focusing on Deaf culture, and its relation to mainstream culture, we aim to challenge prejudices towards differences in general, whether on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality or disability. The ways in which ‘we’ interact with and treat otherness in our society have changed through time and across space. The new exhibition aims to challenge people's attitudes and prejudices and hopefully create greater respect for diversity by exposing the narrowness of the concept of normality."

(from: A Museum for All? The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture, Hanna Mellemsether.  In: Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2013)

The collection at the NDM is set up in a professional way and is accessible and of interest to both
Deaf and hearing visitors. 

The Museum receives funding from the national government (?).

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Hands Up

Hands Up

Hands Up is a Museum or exhibition at the other hand of the line from 'for deaf visitors only' to 'for hearing visitors only'. Hands Up is mostly for hearing people. There are a number of these "Deaf Experience'exhibitions like Hands Up , in Hamburg, Rome, Norway, Russia - see https://www.deafmuseums.eu/index.php/en/deaf-museums/deaf-exhibitions

The Hands Up exhibition tells the story of deafness. It uses 'immersion' techniques (see Chapter 5) to let hearing people experience - for a short time - what it is like to be deaf. Visitors wear ear protection, speaking is not allowed. The guides are Deaf sign language users.

Visitors learn about Deaf History, Deaf Culture, and they learn some signs.

handsup1 handsup2

Most of these 'Deaf Experience' exhibitions are located in tourist centres: Vienna, Rome, Hamburg, Moscow. Several of them share a location with an exhibition about blindness such as "Dialogue in the Dark' in Vienna. 


Hands Up has a mobile version. Deaf guides travel in a pink van to schools, organizations, businesses to tell hearing people about deafness. 

The Hands Up!  exhibition is professional businesses; it does not receive any funding, all costs are paid for from the tickets sold to visitors. 

You can read more about the Hands Up exhibition in the interview with Monika Haider on this website. 

These 'Deaf Experience' exhibitions are important because they make hearing people more aware of what it is like to be deaf - even if only for 45 minutes. After visiting the exhibition, some visitors want to know more and sign up for a sign language course. 

Maybe Hands Up is not a Deaf Museum - but is it a Deaf exhibition? Or an Exhibiton about the Deaf? 

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Expressing ourselves - Australia

Expressing ourselves - Australia

The story of the "Expressing Ourselves" exhibition

Corinne Ball, curator at the Migration Museum in Australia writes about her
"two years of relationship building, negotiation, discovery, learning and hard work on the part of the Deaf exhibition development committee and Migration Museum curators"
to develop the "Expressing Ourselves" exhibition about the local Deaf community.

Below are some quotes from her article to illustrate differences in perspective, and what it takes (time, effort, respect) to tell a story from a joint perspective:

"Before that first meeting [with Deaf community members who were interested in developing a Forum exhibition] my (somewhat reductive and naïve) 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.

The next few meetings, which were all Auslan interpreted (paid for by the museum), presented steep learning curve for me as we workshopped an exhibition structure that would achieve the goals of the committee, and would also deliver a narrative that was engaging for a hearing audience who probably haven’t had much contact with Deaf people.

I took extra Auslan lessons and did a lot of reading about Deaf culture in Australia and overseas. My commitment built trust with the committee and gave me insight into more aspects of Deaf culture. 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."

For the full story, see: Expressing Ourselves

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