‘Expressing ourselves’: creating a Deaf exhibition

History Trust of SA
Dec 11, 2020 · 10 min read

By Corinne Ball, Curator, Migration Museum

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?

(To clarify the terms used here, people who are audiologically unable to hear are deaf, people who use Auslan to communicate identify as part of the signing Deaf community)

Fifteen years ago, Richard Sandell wrote that, while many museums were increasingly preoccupied with reflecting cultural diversity, the lives, experiences, and viewpoints of people with disability were under-represented, and museum practice was selective and inconsistent[1]. This could be said to still be broadly true, despite ground-breaking work by Sandell and co at Calke Abbey and the Wellcome Collection, work by British actor and activist Mat Fraser, exhibitions at Glasgow Museum, etc[2]. In an Australian context, museums now comply with legislated requirements for basic physical access (ramps, lifts, etc), and have embraced improvements in content accessibility and programming such as increasing use of adapted and touch tours, tours in Auslan or with Audio Description, captioned video, implementation of and commitment to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Braille signage, plain language standards, etc.

However, these access improvements haven’t necessarily translated to more inclusive collections or exhibition development practices. Nina Simon has described true inclusion in a museum context as occurring when museums value the diversity in their audience, value those individuals’ potential and contributions, when they actively link those diverse people across differences, and when the organisation reaches out with generosity and curiosity at the core[3]. On a practical level this sort of museum practice would see widespread inclusion of people with disabilities in the planning of museum exhibitions, on museum boards and steering committees, and working in curatorial roles.

The Migration Museum’s role and remit

As a social history museum the Migration Museum has from our opening in 1986 promoted social inclusion, and reflected the cultural diversity of Australia and South Australia. In the last few years, we have begun to understand this inclusion and diversity not only in terms of class, ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, but also in terms of dis/ability. Up to one in five Australians will live with a disability at some point in their lives, and yet these experiences are not acknowledged or foregrounded in museums. Our continuing commitment to improving inclusion has made us look hard at how we welcome people with disabilities into the Migration Museum, and how we include them in our collection development, content creation, and exhibition planning and design.

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.

Deaf with a capital D — community history in South Australia and beyond

The Deaf community in South Australia has a long and rich history, but as is common with Deaf communities around the world, this history has not previously been represented in a mainstream South Australian museum. Similar to a trend overseas identified by Jean Lindquist Bergey and Jack R Gannon of Gallaudet University, there have been local Deaf events, festivals and small exhibits in Australia, but usually produced within and for the Deaf community[4]. Looking worldwide, while there are excellent Deaf museums in Scandinavia, other European countries, and of course at Gallaudet in the US, there have been very few exhibitions in mainstream museums about Deaf life. Notable exceptions, all of which were sign-language focused, have been ‘Kijk! Taal’, an exhibition about Dutch Sign Language at Utrecht University in 1999; The History of British Sign Language exhibition at a sign language linguistics conference held at UCL London in 2013; and Signs of Life, an exhibition about Irish Sign Language by the Irish Deaf Society and Monaghan Deaf Group at Monaghan County Museum in 2012[5]. This last exhibition toured nationally in Ireland.

As part of the Migration Museum’s commitment to working with under-represented groups, we were actively looking for opportunities to build connections with the broader community of South Australians who might identify as having disability. In 2017 we offered an autism-friendly morning, and in 2018 we offered Audio-Described and Australian Sign Language interpreted tours of the Migration Museum as part of the annual History Festival. The Auslan tour was a first for us, and the turnout (and feedback) from Deaf visitors was very encouraging. A relationship between the Migration Museum and the Deaf community grew slowly from these early efforts, and proved that there was considerable interest on both sides in working together.

To further our understanding of Deaf language (and get a basic introduction to Deaf culture), later that year, myself and other museum staff took a six-week Australian Sign Language course organised through our colleagues at the South AustralianMuseum. The class was taught ‘voices off’ (no speaking) by a Deaf teacher from Deaf Can:Do, formerly the Royal South Australian Deaf Society, and a primary provider to the Deaf community in South Australia. I discussed with our teacher how we could better include Deaf people in the museum and she facilitated a meeting with community members who might be interested in developing a Forum exhibition.

Before that first meeting 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[6]. 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 Auslan fingerspelling alphabet was incorporated into each exhibition panel

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.

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. Patricia Roque Martins writes that ‘the use of sign languages in museum practice supports a discourse that breaks with the medical view of disability in its pathological meaning to instead highlight the multicultural perspective, a community vision of what is to be deaf, as a member of a linguistic and cultural minority’[7].

Looking back and looking forward in Expressing ourselves

Martins further writes that, while hearing persons may naturally consider d/Deaf people to be disabled since they have a sensory failure, Deaf people strongly disassociate their identity from the paradigm of disability[8]. This rejection of a medical, hearing-centred view of deafness was very important to the exhibition committee and echoes the journeys they have undertaken in their own lives to claim their proud Deaf identities. In the exhibition we did not use a deficit model to discuss deafness but instead chose emphasise that when Deaf and hearing people can communicate effectively then Deaf people have the same opportunities as their hearing counterparts. As a hearing person this ‘moving of the centre’ from hearing to not hearing was my biggest lesson to learn, and involved surrendering my ‘hearing privilege’ and my privilege as a museum curator. I have received feedback from hearing visitors and colleagues that this shifting of focus has made them rethink their understanding of what it might mean to be Deaf.

Outcomes

As with any work worth doing well, welcoming the Deaf community into the museum, and all the meetings, activities, and working towards inclusion required a considerable resource commitment by the museum. Our committee generously gave us their time, expertise, and encouragement and many other community members lent objects and photos for the final display as well as providing contacts and other support. 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

Feedback and constructive criticism from the committee and Deaf visitors has been positive, and has given us suggestions for more public programs to run for the exhibition into 2021. These will include more Deaf-to-Deaf Auslan tours, a summer ‘Kids try Auslan’ program with a Deaf teacher, and hopefully some video ‘oral histories’ of Deaf people to capture more personal reminiscences. We have also been able to begin forming professional relationships with other parts of the Deaf community, including the Deaf/Blind, First Nations Deaf people, and TAFE Auslan students. These relationships will inform our practice going forward, in particular with the inclusion of Deaf First Nations people and their stories in the redevelopment of our 19th century galleries next year.

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. Watch this space for more!

NAIDOC week 2021 afternoon tea at Migration Museum with Deaf Aboriginal Services, Deaf community members, and TAFE SA Auslan students

Corinne Ball

Curator, Migration Museum

[1] Richard Sandell, Annie Delin, Jocelyn Dodd, Jackie Gay, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester ‘Beggars, freaks and heroes? Museum collections and the hidden history of disability’ Museum Management and Curatorship vol 20 issue 1, 2005

[2] Lives in Motion: Transport and Disability held at the Museum of Transport (Glasgow Museums), 2012, cited in Gareth Harris 2014 https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2014/10/10102014-fraser-museums-must-work-to-change-perceptions-of-disabled-people/

[3] Nina Simon ‘Fighting for Inclusion’ MuseumTwo 2015 http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2015/09/fighting-for-inclusion.html

[4] Jean Lindquist Bergey and Jack R Gannon ‘Deaf History Goes Public’ Sign Language Studies Vol 17 №1, Special Issue: Assessing the Field of Deaf in Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Public History, Gallaudet University Press, 2016, pp 117–121

[5] Valerie Sutton ‘Dutch Museum Displays Sign Writing’ on Sign Writing List Forum 1998 http://signwriting.org/forums/swlist/archive2/message/241.html

11th Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research (2013) program, University College London https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2013/07/11/doctor-manjulas-prescription-a-history-of-british-sign-language/

Monaghan County Museum and the Irish Deaf Society Signs of Life 2011 https://monaghan.ie/museum/irish-sign-language-exhibition/

[6] Mandy Paul, lecture Exhibition development: History Museums, for the University of Adelaide, 2018

[7] Patrícia Roque Martins ‘Engaging the d/Deaf Audience in Museums: A Case Study at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum’ Journal of Museum Education 2016, vol 41:3, 202–209

[8] Martins op cit

History Trust of South Australia

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