Selecting a Story
Some stories just need to be told. The main task for Museum professionals then is to decide how to tell this story and what they need to tell this story: what materials, people, what format and maybe: in what location.
Other stories follow from the materials that a Museum has in its collection or in storage: paintings or artefacts from a certain period, exhibits that have not been shown for some time. Exhibits are selected, grouped according to a theme, a story is developed around that theme and exhibits are added or removed to tell the story even better.
This is what it says in 10 Top Tips for Museum Interpretation:
"Key components for storytelling in museums…
Just like a narrator, your displays can use dramatic techniques to draw your audience into the story. You can use lighting, dramatic pauses, images etc. Consider who your visitor will empathise with – and therefore, who will they care about the most?
What kind of emotions will your characters evoke in your visitors? How does that support your interpretive objectives and messages?
What does the development of the main characters tell your visitor about your chosen subject?
Historic or thematic research is likely to give you a good start (setting the scene) and a proper end (the final outcome). Given the characters involved, plot your story along the main events or milestones to develop your storyline.
What is the most dramatic moment in the development of your story? How do you communicate your story’s climax?
Does your story offer an opportunity to surprise your visitors?
How much do you help your visitors create the world of your story in their minds? (Images, using evocative language, etc.)"
In the past, Museums told their stories from the perspective or point of view of the majority culture. Usually from the personal perspective of a curator: an expert who knows a lot about the topic of the story and about the objects and materials that are on display.
This has changed. Now, Museums more often take the interests and needs of the visitors into account. Not: what does the curator want to tell about this object? But: what does the visitor want to know? Museums changed - or are changing - from a paternalistic perspective to a participatory approach.
This means that Museums now also take the perspective of the original owners, makers or users of an object into account. The story - or the information panel attached to the object - is not told by an 'all knowing' expert, but by a person who can tell the story from a first-person perspective: I was there, I have seen it with my own eyes, used it, experienced it.
"New relationships between museums and source communities based on more democratic, empowering and egalitarian principles and practices have been established in recent years.
However, it can be argued that many museums continue to establish and maintain one-sided relationships with communities through which research (for curatorial purposes or to inform education or audience development initiatives) is undertaken to address topics and questions decided upon by the museum.
Thus, when consulting or conducting research with disabled people, questions might be framed primarily around museum-oriented concerns (what do you know about this object in our collections?) rather than through a more open and equitable agenda which begins with the priorities, interests and concerns of the disabled person."
Heather Hollins: Reciprocity, accountability, empowerment. In: Re-Presenting Disability, Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2010
Museums Tell Stories
In the past, a Museum or exhibition was a collection of paintings, artefacts, instruments, objects, animals. A Museum was like an encyclopaedia: a large number of items that you could browse through, in any order.
In recent years this has changed. Museum professionals now want to tell stories. Each exhibition is a story, a Museum is a collection of stories.
Ultimately, storytelling is a marketing trick. Everything these days tells a story: products, food, clothes. Museums have followed this trend.
But it is also because stories help visitors understand what they see. A story can provide context. A story can help people remember.
"Stories share personal experiences in an authentic and easily accessible form. They feel familiar, yet enable us to step into the shoes of others. They are full of detail, but leave space for us to insert our own thoughts, feelings and memories.
We use stories to make sense of the world. While we see ourselves in them, it is through stories that we encounter new perspectives that change how we think and feel."
Museums and exhibitions use their exhibits and displays to tell their stories.
Sometimes the story is very obvious. The name of the Museum or the exhibition will tell you what the story is about. In other cases, visitors can use the displays to recreate the story for themselves, or to create their own personal story.
In some cases, visitors and community members are asked to contribute to the story: materials such as photos, objects, or their personal stories. This is called a 'participatory' or 'community centred' approach. You can read more about this further down on this page.
"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."
A mission statement usually is a short version of the story that a Museum wants to tell, with some additional information:
It is a short text that describes the 'guiding principles' of a Museum. Mission statements are important for fundraising: they tell people what a Museum is about and why it should receive funding.
At a later stage, the mission statement can keep a Museum on track. It can help with future decisions: what to include in a Museum and what not?
- Why must this story be told? What does the museum want to accomplish with this story, what is the objective or goal?
- 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?
According to the American Alliance of Museums, a mission statement
".. is the beating heart of a museum. It articulates the museum’s educational focus and purpose and its role and responsibility to the public and its collections."
"A mission statement drives everything the museum does; vision, policy-making, planning and operations are all extensions of a museum’s mission."
When you want to collaborate with a mainstream Museum, for instance to build an exhibition about Deaf history or Deaf art, you can look at the Museum's mission statement to find arguments to convince them that this is in their interest, too. This is what Nina Simon wrote about this in 2015:
"In some institutions, your strongest weapon is a core strategic document - typically, a mission statement.
If your mission statement talks about serving "all Minnesotans" or "creativity for everyone," that's a mandate for inclusion.
Even if the mission statement is primarily used in your institution as an aspirational ideal, it's still something that theoretically everyone from top to bottom is working towards.
If you can use the sentence: "We can accomplish XX part of our mission by doing YY," people at the top have to listen to you. They may not agree with you, but if you can couch your goals in the context of agreed-upon strategic language, you can use that language as a shield as you pursue action."
For examples of the mission statements of mainstream museums, see: https://www.slideshare.net/vina/museum-mission-statements
The Stories that Deaf Museums Tell
The stories that Deaf Museums tell differ in their focus, and sometimes in their perspective.
Partly, this depends on the target group of each Museum. In our Survey of Deaf Museums, (see elsewhere on this website), we asked our contact persons who the target group of their Museum was. They all said that their Museum was both for Deaf people and for hearing people. In most cases: hearing people who are already interested in Deaf history or the Deaf community: sign language students, hearing family members of Deaf people, professionals working with or for Deaf people.
But the Norwegian Deaf Museum specifically mentions that they also want to attract hearing people who do not know anything about deafness yet - see below.
The Silent Museums and Exhibitions in Vienna, Rome, and Moscow , and the Rom X exhibition of the Norwegian Museum of the Deaf are specifically targeted at hearing people. They want hearing visitors to learn and experience what it is like to be deaf.
The stories that Deaf Museums in Europe tell, can be located on a line, a continuum, 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'.
It depends on the definition of "Deaf Museum" whether these last Museums - the ones all the way on the right - are also considered as examples of "Deaf Museums" or "Deaf Exhibitions". Since some of these are the only ones that are currently run as commercial enterprises without external funding, we will include them as examples in later chapters, because they may have important lessons to teach.
Below you will find the stories that the Deaf Museums in Europe want to tell.
An easy example of how important perspective is, are the stories that different people will tell about 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'.
Speech training from the perspective of a teacher and a hearing photographer:
Brother teaches articulation in front of the class. Inst. for the Deaf, St. Michielsgestel. 1940
And: speech training from the perspective of a Deaf adult, remembering speech training from the perspective of the child:
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.
Deaf Museums in Europe differ in their perspectives. The Museum of Deaf Education in the Netherlands had a hearing curator; the Museum was located in the old building of the School for the Deaf in Saint Michielsgestel. The Museum It told its story mostly from the perspective of (hearing) educators.
The Deaf Museums that are run by Deaf professionals choose a 'Deaf perspective'. It is an important question: who owns Deaf History, the Deaf Heritage? Who can tell its stories?
ChatGTP Example: Mission Statement
A Mission Statement, generated by ChatGTP
Question: Can you write a mission statement for a museum about deaf history?
Answer (22 December 2022):
"Our mission at the Museum of Deaf History is to preserve and promote the rich cultural heritage of the deaf community, and to educate the general public about deaf history, culture, and the challenges faced by deaf individuals throughout the ages.
We strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all visitors, and to provide a platform for the deaf community to share their stories and experiences.
Through our exhibitions, programming, and research, we aim to empower deaf individuals and raise awareness about deaf issues, and to encourage mutual understanding and respect between deaf and hearing communities."
The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture, Norsk Døvemuseum
The Norwegian Deaf Museum (NDM) is somewhere in the middle of the Deaf Museums continuum that goes from '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 set up by hearing curators in close cooperation with the local Deaf community.
It is located in the old building of the first school for the Deaf in Norway, in Trondheim. This is what Hanna Mellemsether, a former 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. "
When the Deaf Museum became part of the Trøndelag Folk Museum, the target group and therefore the story (narrative) of the Museum 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.
Finnish Museum of the Deaf, Kuurojen Museo
The museum's permanent exhibition portrays the life of C.O. Malm.
Carl Oscar Malm, also known as C. O. Malm and Carl Oskar Malm was Finland's first teacher of the deaf, founder of the first school for the deaf in the country, and the father of Finnish Sign Language.
The history of the sign language community is presented through changing exhibitions and the webmuseum.
The room of C.O. Malm in the museum
Deaf Heritage Centre, UK
The story that the Deaf Heritage Centre, UK 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.
See the interview with Peter Jackson for more information.
Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds
The plans for the museum were born when Armand Pelletier received many original manuscripts, some of which were written by Ferdinand Berthier, the deaf-mute advocate. 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.
Now, the Museum presents a permanent exhibition dedicated to Ferdinand Berthier and temporary exhibitions on specific themes.
"Hands Up" is mostly for hearing people. There are a number of these "Deaf Experience' exhibitions similar to "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.
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.
The "Hands Up" exhibition is commercial business; 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, some sign up for a sign language course.
Maybe "Hands Up" is not a Deaf Museum - but is it a Deaf exhibition? Or an exhibition about the Deaf?