logo blue

John Hay, Executive Member of Deaf History Scotland


 John Hay01

John Hay03

John Hay03

John Hay04

More info about John's Report, with the download link

Background and Current position

My name is John Hay. I have attended and been involved with the Deaf Museums project meeting in Italy. I am now going to explain my background.

I was a university lecturer in the field of Deaf Studies with English/BSL interpreter studies at Wolverhampton, England. I was originally an architectural technician for 25 years. I then joined the BDA (British Deaf Association) as the Community Advocacy Officer covering all of Scotland. From there I joined the University of Wolverhampton.

When I retired from the university. I was then asked to work for the BBC programme See Hear as a Researcher for 6 months. After the BBC I went back to work for the BDA on their Film and Video project. This involved travelling around the UK to Deaf clubs and giving screenings of old video and film archive spanning from 1910 to 1970.

I was born and raised in Edinburgh, attending Donaldson, the local Deaf school. I passed the ’11 Plus’ which enabled me to go to Mary Hare Grammar school in England when I was 12 years old. When I passed their entrance exam I studied at the school for my secondary education. When I left school I returned back home to Edinburgh.


When I started working in Architecture, one day I was asked to go to look at a new building extension that I was to design. The street was called Dumbie Dyks Road. My curiosity was pricked as to how came to be named. I started to do some research and I found that it was the site of where Braidwood Academy had been located as the school for Deaf children from 1760. That then lead me into doing much more research about my local area and Edinburgh and ultimately going on to work in an adult based education setting, teaching local people about the history of Deaf people in Edinburgh. Ever since then I’ve been researching Edinburgh Deaf history, then Scotland Deaf history and moving on to Deaf UK history and so on.

Myself and Raymond Lee co-founded the British Deaf History Society. That’s how my interest became my passion!

In 2006 I applied for a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for a travelling fellowship. I was successful in the application and was awarded an 8-week study touring grant, covering Europe, the US and Canada. The aim being to visit Deaf museums and archive centres. I visited over 300 museums and archive centres that varied enormously in size and scale. My primary objective was to gather intelligence on how each of the museums and archive centres were run? Where they received their funding from? Who were the people running it and whether they were run on a voluntary or professional basis? Whether the curators were trained, volunteers or people just doing what they can?  

I was to take a look at the quality of the exhibitions. Some exhibitions were simple by nature, scanned photographs on a wall and some were extremely high quality. So, it ranged from very professional to amateur. Also, what hit me was the way different cultures supported the arts in different countries. For example in the US, just as happens with hearing museums, they all have a list of their sponsors or donors. But in other countries museums rely on government grants, such as the UK. The rich people in the UK now need to save their money for their own future retirement. So, there were different systems. I wrote my report and it is on the website of the Churchill trust.

When I had completed my report in 2006/7 if we look at what has happened since then. I was asked to go to Norway for the official opening of a museum run by professional regional curators. I was astonished at the professionalism of the displays, subtitle access on all the exhibits. Then I went to Finland, to the Glass House. The museum there was fantastic, and I thought that is the model for others to follow. The museum was housed within the building of the Finnish Deaf Association. In my report I underlined the importance that museums need to be accessible to all because hearing people also need to appreciate the positive perspective of seeing Deaf people, they also need Deaf awareness and to truly understand the famous quote that “ Deaf people can do anything except hear.”  

In terms of admittance. Some places in the US did charge an entrance fee. My friend was in the US and whilst looking around the local Tourist Board saw that they displayed leaflets for the Deaf museum. That is one way of creating public awareness of the museum.

We need much more training of younger Deaf people to become curators and archivists. Gallaudet University had 2 Deaf archivists, one has since retired. But their museum opened after my travelling fellowship was completed.

People ask me how we can attract graduates who are qualified professionals as curators or archivists? We have very few Deaf people in those positions anywhere in the world. I then realised that we need to reinforce a strategy to promote to young people that there are career opportunities to develop within a museum environment. A career where they may start off in a hearing museum, learn the skills and their craft and then be able to transfer those skills and become curators of Deaf museums. It is a discussion we need to have between us all.

Next Steps

It is good to see the creation of the Deaf Museums project bringing several countries together and people, with the help of volunteers, sharing and exchanging information. I do feel it is important that we have Deaf museums as a part of our society, for example in London there is a Jewish museum, a Women’s museum, a Women’s library, Black countries museum and a whole variety of museums that celebrate various peoples culture and history. So, it’s incredibly important that we have something for Deaf peoples’ history and to increase public awareness.

The issue is that everyone has a limited budget on what they can spend. For example, Deaf History Scotland didn’t have any income stream but fortunately we were able to secure funding from the Lottery Heritage Fund to develop our archives here in Edinburgh. But from that small grant it meant we were able to employ a student interpreter who happened to be a para-archivist. She was incredibly helpful as she was able to write up scoping reports to start off with, recording what we had but also what we needed to improve our archives. Now we have just one room packed with archives and very little working space. Of course, ideally a museum has three spaces: an exhibition room, a research room, and a working room, but we just don’t have that sort of space here.

The British Deaf History Society is a perfect example of how a Deaf museum should be placed because it is placed within Manchester Deaf Centre and on the ground floor, which means even greater accessibility. They have space for staff to work, space for a library and an exhibition area with plenty of extra storage. They are also being conscious that an exhibition must be able to change and be flexible with what it exhibits. That way it continually draws the public to come back and see the new exhibitions including school children can have annual visits to see the new exhibitions and hearing people can return too. Also the museum is there to inform and for the use of Deaf Studies students, student interpreters,  training Teachers of the Deaf, parents of Deaf children- to give them the realisation that Deaf children can do anything and to give them hope that their child can grow and become successful Deaf adults working in lots of professions.

Of course, museums must think and plan carefully how to attract children to the museum by having Fun Days, having tactile and interactive exhibits, and give them tasks to complete. For the older age groups, they can be invited to engage with the library looking back at our historic books, for example our magazines and to find stories within the magazines.

I know there are some museums that have poor quality exhibits, poor photocopies, or just plain photos on a wall without reference to when it was taken, description or credit to the photographer. I know that now we must contend with privacy laws too. There are lost of legal limitations which may stifle our creativity to produce exhibitions, but we must work within the laws of the land. We cannot as Deaf people choose to ignore those laws we must operate as any other museum would operate. Deaf people may wish to add names and identities on to photos but at the same time we must respect the laws of the land.

Interview by Luigi Lerose, UCLan, 13 March 2023. Photos by Liesbeth Pyfers, Pragma: Siena, October 2022



  • "Beyond works of art and objects, museums collect shared heritage, memories and living cultures as well as what we call intangible collectables."
    Source: We are Museums
  • "An important matter for any minority group is that written documents in public archives are often drawn up by the majority group and do not always reflect a minority as it sees itself. Thus, preserving sign language narration is of the utmost importance and a challenge to those working in the field of Deaf history."
    In: TIINA NAUKKARINEN, Finnish Museum of the Deaf: Presenting the Life of Carl Oscar Malm (1826–1863)
  • "Access to and participation in culture is a basic human right. Everyone has a right to representation and agency in museums, and communities should have the power to decide how they engage."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • "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
  • "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.
    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."
    In: Corinne Ball: Expressing Ourselves, 2020
  • "As recently as the 1970s, deaf history did not exist. There were available sketches of various hearing men, primarily teachers, who were credited with bringing knowledge and enlightenment to generations of deaf children, but deaf adults were absent."

    In: Preface to: "Deaf History Unvailed, Interpretations from the New Scholarship". John Vickrey van Cleve, editor
    Publisher: Gallaudet University Press, 1993
  • "Deaf mute, deaf and dumb, hearing impaired – the choices are many and not without consequences. Words have many meanings, they convey attitudes and prejudices and may hurt, even when used in a well-intended context."
    Hanna Mellemsether, in:  Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2013
  • "Museums can increase our sense of wellbeing, help us feel proud of where we have come from, and inspire, challenge and stimulate us."
    Source: https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/museums-change-lives/
  • “If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.”
    Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
  • "The Deaf community is international. What binds Deaf people, despite their different national sign languages, is their shared visual communication, history, cultural activities, and the need for a Deaf “space” where people come together."

    from: The Cultural Model of Deafness
  • "Histories have for too long emphasized the controversies over communication methods and the accomplishments of hearing people in the education of deaf students, with inadequate attention paid to those deaf individuals who created communication bridges and distinguished themselves as change agents in their respective field of endeavour."
    from: Harry G. Lang, Bonny Meath-Lang: Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences, 1995
  • "This (Deaf) Museum is not intended as a casual show, to be seen once and forgotten. Its pretensions are nobler; it has a humanitarian aim. By its solid and tangible evidences, making history memorable and attractive by illustration, it serves a double purpose: to dispel ignorance and prejudice regarding the deaf, and to raise the victims of this prejudice and ignorance to their true level in society."
    The British Deaf Monthly, Vol. VI (p.265) 1897. In: Deaf Museums and Archival Centres, 2006
  • “Stories of disability are largely absent from museum displays. Where they appear, they often reflect deeply entrenched, negative attitudes towards physical and mental difference. Research reveals that museums don’t simply reflect attitudes; they are active in shaping conversations about difference.
    Projects created with disabled people show that museums hold enormous potential to shape more progressive, accurate and respectful ways of understanding human diversity. Why wouldn’t we take up this opportunity? ”
    Richard Sandell, co-director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester
  • "After all, we are all of us explorers, and we all have much to bring to each other from our own
    Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood.
  • "What has become clear is that museums don’t just function as custodians of the past anymore; instead, they have embraced their responsibility towards the communities of the present: a responsibility to represent them, to speak to them, and to be open to dialogue with them."
    Tim Deakin, August 2021
  • "Deaf people have always had a sense of their history as it was being passed down in stories told by generations of students walking in the hallways of their residential schools and by others who congregated in their clubs, ran associations, attended religious services, and played in sporting events.
    With these activities, the deaf community exhibited hallmarks of agency — an effort to maintain their social, cultural, and political autonomy amid intense pressure to conform as hearing, speaking people."
    BRIAN H. GREENWALD AND JOSEPH J. MURRAY, in: Sign Language Studies, Volume 17, Number 1, Fall 2016
  • "For many members of the Deaf community their shared history is both personal and social. Deaf people will have gone to the same school, in many cases boarding schools where most of their younger lives will have been spent together, and then met again at their Deaf clubs, Deaf social events, reunions and other more personal events.
    One of the first things a Deaf person will often ask on meeting, before asking your name, is what school or Deaf club you go to. Making this connection is an important part of any greeting, as it will then help an individual to understand what shared history or people in common you may have."
    from: The Cultural Model of Deafness
  • "And yet, even within a large and, in many ways, traditional organization such as this (Trøndelag Folk Museum, Norway), the museum's encounter with Deaf culture contributed to profound changes and a process, still underway, which challenges our own understanding of what a museum is today, our role in society and our obligations towards more diverse audiences than those we had previously engaged or even recognized."
    Hanna Mellemsether, in:  Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2013
  • “One story makes you weak. But as soon as we have one-hundred stories, you will be strong.”
    Chris Cleave in "Little Bee", 2008
  • "Inclusion is moving from “we tolerate your presence” to “we WANT you here with us”.
    Jillian Enright in The Social Model of Disability, 2021
  • "Until the fall semester of 1986, the history department at Gallaudet University had never before offered a course in the history of deaf people.
    In the 122 years, to that point, since the founding of the university, which was specifically intended for the education of deaf peoples, no one had ever taught a course about this very group of people.
    In all of those years the history department had offered courses on a wide range of topics but never deaf history. "
    ENNIS, WILLIAM T., et al. “A Conversation: Looking Back on 25 Years of A Place of Their Own.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 26–41. 
  • the past can hurt

    From: Walt Disney, The Lion King

  • "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
  • "The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community”. This is based on the principle that citizens are not just consumers of cultural capital created by others; we have agency and the right to contribute through culture to the wider good of society."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • "The Finnish Museum of the Deaf) was founded by deaf people, and, thus, its task has been to strengthen their identity and historical communality.

    Most of our materials have a connection to the key experiences that generations of deaf people have shared. These are important in understanding the past and keeping the collective memory alive."
    In: TIINA NAUKKARINEN, Finnish Museum of the Deaf: Presenting the Life of Carl Oscar Malm (1826–1863)
  • "The most significant function of museums is as centres for cultural democracy, where children and adults learn through practical experience that we all have cultural rights. Having the opportunity to create, and to give to others, may be one of our greatest sources of fulfilment. Culture is everywhere and is created by everyone."
    Source: A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
  • "Museums can increase our sense of wellbeing, help us feel proud of where we have come from, and inspire, challenge and stimulate us."
    Source: Museums Change Lives