Deaf Museums in Europe
Draft, September 2022
The information in this report reflects the views only of the authors.
What is a Museum? Can you call any collection of objects a Museum? No. A Museum is a permanent display of exhibits.
An exhibition, on the other hand, is a temporary display of exhibits. A Museum can include one or more temporary exhibitions. And some people use the word "Museum" for their temporary exhibition - for instance for a pop-up Museum.
In this chapter we will try to answer two questions:
1. What is a Museum? and
2. What is a Deaf Museum, and why are they important?
In this chapter you can also read some background information about the Deaf Museums in Europe that contributed to this report.
If you want to build a Museum, where do you start? You can start with a collection of books, photos or objects that you want to display. Or you start with a story that you want to tell.
In the past, Museums were collections of paintings and artefacts. They were like encyclopaedias: a lot of information that visitors could browse in any way they wanted to. In recent years, this has changed. Now, Museums tell stories. Stories that you can experience with all your senses (see chapter 5).
Why start with the story that you want your Museum to tell? Because later, it will help you make choices: what are you going to display and how?
You also need a story when you apply for funding for your Museum. This is often called the Museum's Mission Statement. What story will your Museum tell? What is the objective of your Museum, what do you want visitors to see, to learn, to remember? Who are the people behind the Museum? Where will it be located? How will it attract visitors?
The good thing about starting with a story is that anyone can do it, even if you only want to build an imaginary, dream Museum. What story do you want to tell with your imaginary Museum? Make a storyboard, add rooms and exhibits. Decide how you want to present your exhibits. Next step, maybe: use an app to create an online 3D Museum. Then, who knows, you can find people who can help you to convert your virtual Museum into a real physical Museum!
In this chapter we will tell you more about stories and Museums. First: how mainstream Museums use stories. Then about the stories that Deaf Museums tell.
The most difficult problem for Deaf Museums is to find a location. The best option of course is a location that is part of the Deaf Heritage: an old school for the Deaf, the old premises of a Deaf Club, or some other building that is part of Deaf history.
To attract as many visitors as possible, the Museum should be located in a major tourist city. It should be easy to reach by public transport. It should be large enough for your needs. Most important of all: it should be affordable as well as sustainable in the long term. As you can read in this chapter, the locations of very few Deaf Museums meet these criteria. In some cases: with disastrous results.
Mainstream Museums have been experimenting with other, more flexible solutions that may be relevant for Deaf Museums, too: a pop-up museum in a shop or a library, a Mobile Museum in a bus, and even a Museum in a Box.
Another option is a virtual Museum on the internet instead of a physical exhibition.
In this chapter, you will find some more information about these options. We'll also look at the different locations of the Deaf Museums in Europe.
A book uses words and language to tell a story. Museums use exhibits to tell their story. Anything can be an exhibit: paintings and statues, but also rocks, machines, photos, videos, animals. Even people.
When you have decided what story you want your Museum to tell and what the location will be, you can start thinking about the content of your Museum: the exhibits. What exhibits do you need to tell your story? How many do you need to fill your spaces? How large can they be? And: how can you collect or produce the exhibits that you need?
Mainstream Museums collect exhibits in different ways. In the past: even by stealing. Most Deaf Museums collected their exhibits by networking and sometimes even by 'dumpster diving: they rescued objects from garbage bins.
Ownership is important for Deaf Museums, too. Who owns Deaf history? Who can display it, who can tell its stories?
In the next chapter, we will discuss how Museums display their exhibits. This chapter is about collecting, preserving, storing and archiving exhibits. And about using stories, photos and videos as exhibits.
Exhibition design is not about what you exhibit, but about how you do this. Your exhibition space is important, as well as your exhibits: how many do you have, what is the best way to display them? And: how can you keep them safe?
Exhibition design is a major topic in Museum studies: how can you make exhibits tell a story? And: how can you make visitors experience this story?
Size is important, as is proper lighting. Labels and text displays are important. And especially for immersive exhibitions: interactivity and engaging all senses, instead of only the eyes or the brains of visitors.
Mainstream Museums have to be accessible to Deaf visitors and to other visitors with disabilities. Deaf Museums have to take the needs of hearing visitors into account, as well as the needs of visitors with disabilities.
Most Deaf Museums do not have the resources for grand, immersive displays. Many don't even have the means to display their photos, books and objects in a safe way, protected from age, climate, visitors, and other hazards. Possibly unique objects or books may be at risk of being stolen or damaged. In this chapter, you can see examples of the displays used in Deaf Museums.
In the past, the curator(s) probably were the most important persons in a Museum. They decided what to exhibit and how to exhibit it.
Again, this has changed. The focus has shifted from curators to visitors. Now visitors are the most important people: they decide whether a Museum or exhibition is a success and whether or not it is sustainable (see Chapter 9). Deciding who the target audience is, that is: the people who will visit the Museum, is important for all the topics that we discussed in the earlier chapters: the story that the Museum tells, the location, the exhibits, the design. And of course: the finances.
Deaf visitors will have different expectations, interests and needs than hearing people who are new to the Deaf world. Older people will look for things, people and events that they know about and remember. Children and young people will want stories and exhibits that they can relate to - and that are 'Instagrammable' and interactive.
Museums do market research to find out who may be interested in visiting the Museum or exhibition, what the wishes and preferences of their target audience are, and what is the best way to reach them.
They do visitor research to find out if they made the right choices: is the target audience actually visiting the Museum? Do they like what is on show? Can they find their way around? Will they come back? Will they recommend the Museum to their friends?
In our survey of Deaf Museums, we've asked our contact persons who their target audience is and how many people actually visit their Museum each year.
Marketing is all about selling a product. For Museums, the "product" is a visit to the Museum or to an exhibition.
When you know who your target audience is: how do you reach them? How do you tell them about your Museum or exhibition? How do you convince them to come and visit? Not once, but many times. And to bring their friends?
Market research is a first step. Where can you find your target group? Who are your competitors? What do they do that you can copy? Or do better?
Visitor research is a second step. How did the people who visit your Museum, find you? What did they like, or not like? Read chapter 6 for more information about market and visitor research.
In this chapter, we summarise the basics of Marketing: what channels do Museums use, what do they do to make their messages hit their target.
There is no 'magic bullet', a marketing strategy that will guarantee success for all. In our survey, we asked the Deaf Museums what tools they use.
According to the definition of Museum (see chapter 1) , a Museum is a not-for-profit institution. But even though a Museum does not have to make a profit, it does need income. Income that will - at least - cover the costs. How do mainstream Museums do this? And how do the Deaf Museums in our survey do this?
Again: there is no magic bullet solution. Finances are a major problem for all Museums, both mainstream Museums and Deaf Museums. Especially now: the Covid-pandemic was a very bad time for Museums: no visitors. More recently the energy crisis has become a problem. Many Museums have trouble paying the rising costs of lighting and heating bills. A final problem for mainstream Museums: the rising personnel costs. That is one problem that most Deaf Museums do not have to worry about: most do not have any paid employees. They depend on volunteers for most activities. Volunteers are the 'human capital' of Deaf Museums. But unfortunately, finding and keeping volunteers is not easy either.
In this chapter, we will list some of the ways that mainstream and Deaf Museums try to generate the income that they need. Including fundraising and crowdfunding.
Last but not least: sustainability. How do you keep your Museum going? Not just one year, but many years? Not just for today's visitors, but for future generations?
Sustainability is often used in the context of ecology and the environment. But basically, it means taking the future and the needs of future generations into account.
What can a Museum do to stay open? To continue to attract visitors? Preferably: to attract growing numbers of new visitors?
It is an important question for mainstream Museums, but maybe even more so for Deaf Museums. In the Deaf Museums survey, we asked our contact persons for their wishes - and worries - for the future.
Intro Chapter 10: Summary and Conclusions
- to be written -