What is a Museum?
In most countries, Museum is not a protected word: people can call any collection a Museum: it can be a shed or a garage with some artefacts, or a huge building.
The Beachcomber Museum in the Netherlands
The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia
The general definition is that a Museum is a building where objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited for the general public and for research.
Museums may exhibit animals, but they usually will be dead animals (recently dead, or very very dead like Dinosaurs), objects, paintings, photos, and whatever you can think of.
But some Museums do also show living dressed-up people who demonstrate how people lived in the past or in foreign countries. People who demonstrate arts and crafts. Or: people who are part of a 'performance'.
In traditional Museums, you can wander about, look at your favourite displays and read the labels.
In recent years, Museums have tried new approaches to get more people to visit the Museum, preferably not once but many times. They want visitors to 'connect' with the displays, to raise interest, awareness, to make people think, feel, learn.
Museums do this by letting people interact with displays, by 'immersing' the visitors in some experience, by organising regular new exhibitions, by offering courses, workshops, DIY activities. All of these can be for the general public, or for special target groups: seniors, children, young people, people with disabilities.
In later chapters, you can read more about this.
Definition of Museum
The official definition of Museum was revised in August 2022. The updated ICOM (International Council of Museums) definition of Museum is:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”
Why is this new definition important? We have highlighted the elements in the text that are most important for us:
According to the new definition, Museums must be
- accessible and
- inclusive, and
- they must foster diversity.
Also: they must operate and communicate with communities.
This new definition can help Deaf Museums: they can use the new text to support their applications for funding. Our plans meet the requirements of the new definition of Museum!
Furthermore, as a result of this new definition, mainstream Museums may become more interested in collaborating with Deaf Museums or the Deaf community. For instance: to set up a joint exhibition.
As part of the Deaf Museums project, we asked mainstream Museums and Museum professionals if they would be interested in collaborating with a Deaf Museum. 21% of the mainstream Museums said they were already working with the Deaf community, 37.5% said they are willing to consider this. See Appendix 2 for more information about this Survey.
"Museums are changing from static, monolithic, and encyclopedic institutions to institutions that are visitor-centric, with shared authority that allows museum and visitors to become co-creators in content creation.
Museum content is also changing, from static content to dynamic, evolving content that is multi-cultural and transparent regarding the evolution of facts and histories, allowing multi-person interpretations of events."
Source: Designing Museum Experiences
What is a Deaf Museum?
A Deaf Museum is a Museum (brick and mortar or virtual on the internet) about Deaf culture, Deaf history, Deaf education, Deaf sports, Deaf arts, or all of the above.
A Deaf Museum can be small, for instance a single room at a Deaf school or a Deaf club. Or it can be large, like the Deaf Museums in Norway and France. Below, you will find the Deaf Museums in Europe that we looked at more closely for this report.
Deaf Museums should also try to meet the new Museum definition. They must be:
- a permanent institution,
- in the service of society,
- interpreting and
- tangible and intangible heritage.
- open to the public,
- fostering diversity and sustainability,
- operating and communicating ethically,
- professionally and
- with the participation of communities,
- offering varied experiences for education,
- reflection and
- knowledge sharing.
Deaf Museums: Why?
Deaf Museums are important:
- to make Deaf people, their culture and their history visible to the general public;
- to help people remember - or learn for the first time - how Deaf people lived in the past, or
- how Deaf people live in the present;
- to make people aware of the many famous Deaf people in the past and in the present: educators, scientists, artists, sportsmen;
- to teach Deaf children that they are part of a large community of Deaf people, both national and international.
Museums about their history and their culture are of course important for all minority groups. But they are even more important for Deaf people, because most Deaf children (appr. 95%) are born in hearing families. Many Deaf children are now mainstreamed - they go to a school for hearing children. Some children and their families may not meet a Deaf adult for many years.
"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
In the previous century Deaf children in schools for the Deaf never met a Deaf adult, either. All their teachers were hearing, most of their families were hearing. This made some children think that all Deaf people died young, that there were no Deaf adults.
For many years, Deaf culture and Deaf history were only transmitted informally, in Deaf families, Deaf clubs, Deaf associations. The general public, historians, professionals working with Deaf people, even some Deaf people themselves didn't - and don't - know that Deaf history and Deaf Museums exist.
Deaf Museums are important because they can help make Deaf culture, Deaf history more visible and accessible to all: Deaf and hearing, children and adults.
"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
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 within 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, 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 have had to close down in recent years, because volunteers are elderly and about to retire, because Deaf societies and Deaf clubs have closed down, because the buildings of large residential schools for the Deaf were sold, because many Deaf children now attend mainstream schools.
But at the same time, mainstream Museums and Museum professionals are discovering the Deaf community as a minority with its own language and culture, and 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 sides, 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
For the Deaf Museums project, we sent an online survey to mainstream Museums and Museum professionals. One of the questions we asked, was:
"Would 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙥𝙚𝙧𝙨𝙤𝙣𝙖𝙡𝙡𝙮 be willing to invest time and/or effort in working with a Deaf organization or the Deaf community in your area in helping set up a Deaf Exhibition or Deaf Museum?"
Over 80% of the respondents said: Yes, they were willing to consider this. Of course, the sample was not representative, Museum professionals with no interest in Deaf history, the Deaf community probably ignored the survey. But many mainstream professionals are willing to cooperate.
The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture (Norsk Døvemuseum)
7012 Trondheim, NO
This is what it says on the Museum's website:
"The Norwegian Deaf Museum is a national museum for the culture and history of the deaf. It is housed in the former boarding school (1855-1991) for deaf pupils from Trøndelag and Northern Norway.
The Norwegian Museum of Deaf Culture and History is also a contemporary museum. We have documented the living culture deaf community and the current situation for the deaf, especially concerning the young deaf. The documentation has been done in Trondheim and Oslo, and everything has been filmed using sign language, texting, and audio. (..)
A separate part of the exhibition is dedicated to the stories of the deaf-blind. It consists of digital stories that can be seen on screens in the museum. In addition, we have made a number tactile elements which convey stories. You can read some of those stories in the collection of articles."
Finnish Museum of the Deaf, Kuurojen Museo
Väinö Linnan aukio 8
33210 Tampere, Finland
From the Museum's website:
"The Finnish Museum of the Deaf preserves the cultural heritage of the Deaf in Finland. It is located in the Lighthouse, the headquarters of the Finnish Association of the Deaf in Helsinki. The Museum operates as part of the Finnish Labour Museum Werstas in Tampere.
History of the museum
The idea of collecting materials related to the past of the deaf in Finland arose as early as the early 20 century. John Sundberg was a travelling advocate of the Finnish Association of the Deaf, founded in 1905, and a journalist for the association's magazine Kuurojen Lehti. He had been told that museums depicting the history of deaf education existed in Paris and Leipzig, which inspired him to start planning for a similar museum in Finland.
The time of the foundation of the museum has been estimated on the basis of the donations given by Fritz and Maria Hirn to the museum in 1907. The Hirns were students of Carl Oscar Malm, the founder of deaf education in Finland, and they donated to the museum photographs and materials dating back to their school years. The museum collections increased gradually and the first exhibition, Carl Oscar Malm's museum room, was opened to the public for the first time on 12 February 1915.
Functions of the museum
Today, the Finnish Museum of the Deaf is part of the Finnish Labour Museum Werstas. The function of the museum is to collect research and exhibit the cultural heritage of deaf and sign language users in Finland.
The aim of the museum is to increase knowledge of the history and culture of deaf and sign language users and to strengthen their identity. In addition, the museum aims at communicating knowledge related to its speciality to the public at large. The varied collections of the museum serve both researchers and other customers.
The Finnish Museum of the Deaf co-operates with other museums and instances that carry out research on the deaf and sign language both in Finland and internationally. The museum does research and presents it through its exhibition activities and the materials it produces."
Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds
14 rue Edgar Guigot
71500 Louhans, France
From the Museum's website:
"The Museum for the Deaf is the first in France. The foundation of the Museum required 12 years of research and 2 and a half years of work. This work was led by Armand Pelletier, assisted by his wife Yvette, and Yves Delaporte . The official opening was March 9, 2013.
Armand Pelletier and his wife Yvette at the Museum (source: Wikipedia).
The Museum is located in the outbuildings of the Hôtel-Dieu de Louhans. Its collection includes dozens of paintings, writings, diagrams and photographs retracing the history and heritage of the deaf.
The museum exhibits all aspects of the history and culture of the deaf:
- The rich and complex history of each of the many schools for deaf children.
- The role of deaf teachers in sign language education.
- The social life of deaf children in institutions.
- The epic of deaf sport, which has its own world games.
- The history of associative life.
- The history of sign language, regional dialects, lexical creation, humour in signs.
The plans for a Museum were born when Armand Pelletier received many original manuscripts written by Ferdinand Berthier. Among these manuscripts, for example, was an original petition from 1830 during the "revolution" against the oral education of students at the Institution des Jeunes Sourds de Saint Jacques in Paris.
The Museum now presents a permanent exhibition dedicated to Ferdinand Berthier and temporary exhibitions on specific themes. It helps to preserve a trace of the history and the culture of the deaf, by exhibiting pieces of the deaf cultural, artistic and historical heritage. Thus, this culture will not disappear, which is important today for deaf children."
Deaf Heritage Centre UK
Manchester Deaf Centre
Crawford House, Booth Street East
Manchester M13 9GH, UK
"Set up in 2006, the Deaf Museum and Archive has grown into a credible national collection consisting of numerous artefacts, deaf artwork and paper archive collections of all kinds. It is the only museum in Britain that is specific to Deafness, Deaf communities and Deaf people.
The Research Library and the Deaf archives are now fully open and accessible but by prior appointments only. "
Deaf Heritage Centre, Ireland
Cabra Dublin 7
Republic of Ireland.
From the Centre's website:
"The Deaf Heritage Centre is located within Deaf Village Ireland in Dublin 7. It was set up in 1999 by a group of past pupils of St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys, Cabra.
The initial aims of the group were to collect and preserve the priceless artefacts from this school. Since then, it has expanded its reach to include other schools and organisations, including deaf clubs around the country.
At present, the centre has the exhibition room, library, administration/ research room and archives. In the archives, there are numerous old and rare artefacts such as school rolls, correspondences, photographs, film reels, books, all of which are priceless and have to be protected from natural damage.
The major aims and objectives of the centre are not merely to preserve the artefacts and materials and to exhibit them, but also to recreate the chequered historical experience of the deaf community in the past 200 years,
The centre is open to the public at large, particularly students, historians, academics and researchers."
Tommaso Pendola Museum
Via Tommaso Pendola n. 35
"The Pendola Institute is a foundation established for the treatment of severe congenital deafness, located on Via Tommaso Pendola #35-43 in the town centre of Siena, region of Tuscany, Italy.
It has a long history, starting as a charitable institution founded by the Genoese Scolopi priest Tommaso Pendola (1800-1883) in the early 1820s, and promulgating an oralist therapy for the deaf-mutes. The subsequent decades have modified the funding and scope of activities.
The oral method, fostered by Pendola, involved lip reading, was the main method used in Europe during the 19th and most of the 20th-century. Some sources claim that Roman Catholicism favoured oral tradition, versus sign language methods, because speech was required for confession.
After Pendola's death, the name was changed by decree of Umberto I to the Royal Institute Pendola for Deaf Mutes.
In 1980 the school was closed and the students were transferred mainly to Istituto Gualandi.
Today the headquarters of the former institute houses the museum dedicated to the school, full of handicrafts made by pupils and specific equipment used in the classroom."
2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
From the Museum's website:
"Døvehistorisk Selskab (Danish Deaf History Society) was established in 1981 for the purpose of collecting, archiving and publishing material which illuminates the conditions, lives and work of the deaf in Denmark.
The Society has set up a Historical Artifact Collection containing books, pictures and other material which illustrates the history of the deaf in Denmark through time.
The Historical Artifact Collection and the Museum are located at Langelinieskolen, the School for the Deaf in Copenhagen.
The Museum is small (approximately 400 items), archives (approximately 10.000 both documents and pictures), library (approximately 2.000 books about deafness and sign language).
There is a small exhibition about Deaf life in Denmark and a collection about Deaf and sign language from all around the world.
The Collection is entirely based on voluntary work, consequently the Society is only capable of serving the members, the school staff and deaf individuals interested in deaf history."
Museum of Deaf Education (Museum voor Dovenonderwijs)
The Museum of Deaf Education was located in one of the old chapels of the Institute for the Deaf in Sint Michielsgestel (NL). When the buildings were sold in 2021, the Museum was closed down - possibly permanently. Attempts are being made to relocate it to a new location.
The Museum as it was until early 2021:
You can find an interview with Piet Borneman, the curator of the Museum, elsewhere on this website.