logo blue

4. Exhibits

To the Table of Contents 

5 of 5 (1 Vote)



Something automatically becomes an exhibit when it is displayed in a Museum or an exhibition. Or - as is often the case in large museums - when it is part of the collection that the museum has in storage.

Even a performance - a dance, a discussion, a poem -  can be an exhibit.

There is a shoe museum; all the exhibits are shoes. Or photos or videos of shoes.

In the Museum of Ice Cream, the exhibits are different kinds of ice-cream and things that have to do with Ice Cream.

museum of Ice Cream


The Museum of Ice Cream, a pop-up museum in New York.


"Over the next decade, museums need their collections to be:
Empowering – using collections to bring  communities together, promote health and wellbeing, explore issues of place and identity, and equip people with the facts and understanding that are relevant to contemporary issues.
Relevant – working with users and stakeholders to better understand how collections can be relevant to diverse audiences.
Dynamic – ensuring collections are well-managed, understood, rationalised and accessible to audiences in person and online."


Collecting and Selecting

Collecting and Selecting

In general, Museums collect new exhibits in different ways:

    • They receive them as gifts, for instance from other Museums, from collectors, or as legacies when people die;
    • They buy the objects or performances that they want;
    • They lend exhibits - from other Museums, from collectors, from the community. In this case, Museums don't have to pay for the exhibits, but they do have to return them after an agreed period;
    • They steal them - this sounds controversial, but it is what many Museums did in the past. A large part of the collection of some Museums consists of artefacts taken from foreign countries, from indigenous communities, or from persons or other Museums during times of war. Many Museums are now returning these stolen objects, see Ownership, below.
    • They have someone produce the exhibits that they want This can be interactive displays, videos, instruments, but also live performances.


Most Museums have large collections. They use what they have in their basement or storage rooms to make a new exhibition. Their main task then is to select the materials that they want to display in an exhibition.

The questions they have to ask themselves:
  • Which materials support the story that we want to tell?
  • Which materials best inform, touch, engage, entertain, instruct our audience(s)? And:
  • Which materials fit our exhibition design (e.g. they have the right size, format, etc.).

"Museums need to listen to audiences, users and stakeholders to understand how collections can be relevant and what stories they can tell.

Objects and collections can be meaningful to a person, group, or community in ways that can be overlooked by curators working alone.

We need new and critical public reinterpretations of collections and to think imaginatively about how to broaden the  range of people to whom collections can be meaningful."

from: Empowering Collections

 Further Reading: 



In the past, mainstream Museums often exhibited materials and objects from other countries or from minorities. They used these materials to tell a story from a 'mainstream' perspective.

This has changed. Museums are now returning objects to the countries and communities that are the rightful owners.

Instead of telling the story from perspective of the curator or some other expert, they now ask the original owners, makers, users of artefacts and objects to tell the story from their perspective.

Some Museums go a step further. They create exhibitions together with a  community, so that this community becomes the co-owner of the exhibition. This is called a community centred or participatory approach. See chapter 5 for more information.

"Partnerships should bring communities together and be based on the principle of equity. Museums should work with a diverse range of partners and think beyond traditional partners and audiences."

Museum Association, https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/learning-and-engagement/partnerships/

Further Reading: 

Stories and Oral History

Stories and Oral History

Oral History

Many Museums now use stories, oral history, as an integral part of their collection.

Instead of just displaying an object, the Museum adds a video or text that tells the story of this object. Stories can even be the main exhibits: the stories become exhibits themselves. If the stories are about the past, they are often called 'oral history'. 

"The objects themselves are only one aspect of a collection, the memories and stories an item can unlock for an individual or community is often the real value of the collection."

from:  Working with Collections

There are different ways that Museums collect stories:

    • They interview a large number of people, then select the best stories to use.
    • They organise a workshop and at the workshop, they ask people to tell their stories.
    • They use social media and the internet to collect stories. For instance: they post a photo or video on Facebook or on their website and ask people to send them a short video or text about what they know and remember about this object, person or event. This is what the Foundling Museum did, see below.

The Foundling Museum

In 2008 the Foundling Museum in London received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to run an oral history project: Foundling Voices. The project recorded interviews with 74 people who grew up in the care of the Hospital in the first half of the twentieth century. They also interviewed one teacher, children and partners of Foundling pupils and townspeople from Berkhamsted who could remember the school.

People that were interviewed contributed photographs, letters and other documents to be used in the exhibition. You can find the online exhibition here: http://foundlingvoices.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/index.html

image 2021 10 28 160115

 Further Reading: 


Copyrights and Data Protection

Copyrights and Data Protection

Museums cannot use photos, videos or other materials that they have collected, without the written permission of the person who created a photo or video. And: without the written permission of the person(s) who can be seen in a photo, video or other artwork.

Copyright Law

The copyright law protects the person who made a photo, video or other artwork. A Museum cannot use anything publicly, without the explicit, written permission of the creator of that item or whoever has the copyright of that item. 

There are exceptions, for instance for materials that are in the 'public domain'.  Anything that is in the public domain, can be used without permission.

Museums may also be able to use old materials: 70 years (but the number of years is different in some countries) after the maker of a photo or video dies, the material becomes part of the public domain and can be used without permission.

An ongoing debate is whether 'embedding' a photo or video in an online exhibition is a breach of copyright law. The European Court of Justice ruled that embedding (or: framing) content on other sites is generally not relevant under copyright law. It is comparable to a link and therefore: allowed.

This means that any public material (photos, videos) can be re-used on another website - if the original work has been published openly and is accessible to all internet users with the copyright holder’s permission (see: Europeana).

Orphan Works

Orphan works are creative works or performances that are subject to copyright - like a diary, photograph, film or piece of music - for which one or more of the copyright holders is unknown or cannot be found. In this case, a Museum may use the work as an exhibit, but it must be able to prove that the work is indeed an 'orphan work'. A work will qualify as an orphan work after a ‘diligent search’ has been carried out and it is established that the owner of the copyright cannot be identified, or if identified cannot be located.  

The Orphan Work Directive  is a directive of the European Parliament and European Council enacted on 25 October 2012 that pertains to certain uses of orphan works.

Personal Data Protection (GDPR)

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an EU-wide regulation that controls how companies and other organisations handle personal data.

The GDPR protects the people that are IN a photo, video, or other artwork. If an individual in a photo or video can be recognized or identified, the photo or video is considered to be personal data. You are not allowed to use these materials publicly, without the explicit written permission of the persons who are visible in that photo, video or other artefact. 

Further Reading:

Preserving, Storing and Archiving

Preserving, Storing and Archiving


Large Museums have large storage spaces or depots, full of exhibits that are not on display. On average, Museums show only 10% of their collection to the public. The other 90% are stored in a safe way. 

"Proper storage for museum collections should provide easy access to the collections while protecting the art objects in a safe and secure manner. Important concerns for safe storage are: adequate security, proper environmental conditions, selection of appropriate storage fixtures, and proper packing and support of artefacts in storage.

Storage areas should be clean, well ventilated and properly illuminated. Temperature and humidity levels and air quality must be monitored regularly.

Appropriate fire protection should be installed.

Illumination should allow staff access to the collection without causing damage to the collection. While stored, items should be in the dark at all times.

Objects within storage areas are packed, supported and stored in ways that can be either beneficial or deleterious to their condition."  From: https://www.collectioncare.org/storage-guidelines

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam storageStorage of paintings in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 

 mini smithsonianStorage of feathers in the Smithsonian Museum.


Preservation is about the prevention and the repair of damage. 

Before materials can be stored, they must be preserved. The preservation of artefacts is of course very important for Museums. Documents, photos and films can now be digitised. In the Museum and online, the digitised versions can be displayed to keep the originals safe.  

With objects, this is more difficult. Some objects that a Museum receives may be damaged. They must be restored before they can be used or stored. Other objects must be protected from deterioration.

A major issue for many curators is whether visitors are allowed to touch exhibits. Paintings, documents: no touching! But what about visitors who damage exhibits by accident? Or on purpose?

Machinery, interactive displays? Visitors should be allowed to interact with them - but then there is the risk that the exhibits will be damaged. What if you have only one original artefact  that cannot be replaced? Or an artefact is very expensive to replace?

image 2021 10 28 130451

A nineteenth-century copy of the ancient Greek statue the Drunken Satyr has been the victim of a vicious selfie attack. In March 2014, a student visiting the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan jumped on a 19th-century statue’s lap in an attempt to capture the photo, breaking its leg in the process. Photo by Nicola Vaglia.

Cataloguing and Archiving

To keep track of the exhibits in their collection - both the exhibits that are on display and those that are in storage -  Museums use a Collections Management System (CMS) or some other database system. 

DAMS is short for Digital Asset Management System. This is a Collection Management System that also stores digital files: digitised magazines, articles, photos, videos. The DAMS stores the files and makes them accessible so that they can be found at a later time. 

Further Reading: 

Exhibits at Deaf Museums

Exhibits at Deaf Museums

What exhibits a Deaf Museums uses, depends on a number of questions:

    • Is it a physical or virtual Museum or a combination: a hybrid Museum?
    • How much space does the Museum have? 
    • What story does the Museum want to tell? A story about Deaf Education, about a specific School for the Deaf, a Deaf Club, a specific Deaf person, or all of the above?
    • What objects can the Museum collect? By asking, finding, saving, or buying?

Exhibits of most Deaf Museums include photos, videos, technical equipment, books, magazines. Most also include items used by deafblind people - now or in the past. 

deafblind equipment BDM

Exhibits about deafblind people at the Deaf Heritage Centre UK 

Museum of Deaf Education, NL

The Museum of Deaf Education in the Netherlands unfortunately had to close in 2021 because the old buildings of the School for the Deaf in Sint Michielsgestel (NL) were sold.

The collection - now in storage -  started out with objects, documents, photos and videos of the school for the Deaf in Sint Michielsgestel. Piet Borneman who worked at the school as the Head Nurse, started collecting objects out of personal interest. There was no Museum yet, there were no plans even for a Museum.
Once it became known that Piet was collecting, other schools for the Deaf contacted him - usually when they were moving to a new location. "Piet, if you want our books, desks, photos, come and get them, now because everything will be thrown out." Piet became good at 'dumpster diving' and saved many irreplaceable documents and objects from destruction. 

When the Museum was opened in 2015, the exhibits included many objects and books from other schools for the Deaf in the Netherlands. For the full story, see elsewhere on this website

Because of Piet's personal interests, the collection of the Museum also included examples of hearing aids and audiometric equipment through the ages. hoorhulpmiddelen

Finnish Museum of the Deaf, Kuurojen Museo

The Finnish Museum of the Deaf started out by telling the story of Carl Oscar Malm, the founder of deaf education in Finland . It exhibited the donations given by Fritz and Maria Hirn to the Museum in 1907. The Hirns were students of Carl Oscar Malm, and they donated photographs and materials dating back to their school years. The Museum's collections increased gradually and the first exhibition, Carl Oscar Malm's  room, was opened to the public for the first time on 12 February 1915.

Today, the museum's permanent exhibition is still dedicated to the life of  Malm.

In addition, changing exhibitions and the web-museum show the history of the sign language community  in Finland. 


The room of Carl Oscar Malm in the Museum

Deaf Heritage Centre, UK

The collection of the Deaf Heritage Centre in Manchester is a national collection that consists of numerous artefacts, deaf artwork and paper archive collections of all kinds.

See the video of Maureen Jackson, one of the volunteers working at the Deaf Heritage Centre UK, who tells us about the Centre's collection and one of its exhibits that was saved from destruction: a sweater with fingerspelling (BSL with English Voice Over, December 2021): 

Deaf Ownership

Deaf Ownership

Ownership is more than just who has an object or artefact in his or her possession. Who owns - and can tell - the overall story of the Deaf minority in a hearing world? The big overall story as well as the 'small' individual stories? In the past, much of Deaf History was claimed by hearing professionals, hearing educators: they told the stories from their hearing perspectives. 

Museums, historians and curators who claim ownership may do this from the best of intentions: "We know how to preserve your artefacts", "We know how to tell your story." But this can be seen as or can actually be a sign of paternalism: "We'll do this for you, because we can do this better than you can, because we can tell your stories better than you can. "Today's Museums and curators are aware of this and will work with the actual owners of artefacts and history. 

Ownership is important for Deaf Museums too, for three more reasons:

    • When a Deaf Museum works together with a mainstream Museum or with Museum professionals, both parties will have to work together in a way that avoids paternalism. Both parties must respect each other's expertise.
    • It is important that the local, regional or national Deaf community is involved in the creation and running of the Deaf Museum. Deaf people of all ages should feel from the start that the Museum is 'their' Museum, that they co-own the Museum and are responsible for its survival.
    • When Deaf Museums want to tell a specific story in an exhibition, maybe the story of the Deaf LHBTI community or Deaf people of colour, or maybe even Deaf education, they must take into account that these stories are owned by these groups. "Nothing about us, without us" is relevant for subgroups too.  
Deaf Stories and Signed History

Deaf Stories and Signed History

For sign language users, we can call 'oral history': 'signed history'.

Stories can be used to support other materials. An example: a Museum can show an antique text-telephone and add one or more stories told by people who actually used these phones in the past. This will make the object come to life.

It will also make people aware of the important role that the text-telephone, or technology in general, played in the history and the emancipation of Deaf people. 

A Museum can also use stories instead of objects in our exhibitions.  The stories can be personal memories, poems, jokes - as long as they support or illustrate the story that we want to tell.


image 2020 11 06 095101


On the Deaf Museum's website, we have collected a number of 'signed' stories from different countries, see: https://www.deafmuseums.eu/index.php/en/resources/all-resources/category/personal-memories

Further Reading: 


Preserving, Storing and Archiving Deaf Exhibits

Preserving, Storing and Archiving Deaf Exhibits

Most Deaf Museums do not have the resources for the proper - and safe! - storage of documents and objects. 
Unique objects and documents can easily get lost, stolen or damaged. 

mini TomassoPendola

Unique objects and photos at the Tommaso Pendola Museum in Siena

Many Deaf Associations have started to digitise and archive national documents and magazines. This is almost always done by volunteers. Each group and organisation uses its own system to do this. Not all archives are accessible online. You can find an overview of these groups elsewhere on this website. 

Two examples:

Scottish Deaf History Archives Archives of Deaf History Scotland

Rotterdam Archives

Archives of "Historie Doven Rotterdam" NL

  Digitizing Deaf Magazines and Documents

One of the partners in the Deaf Museums project, DeafStudio (Slovakia) had a large number of old magazines for the Deaf. They decided that they would digitise these magazines and make them available in an online archive.  

At first, the plan was to do the scanning of the magazines by hand, maybe by roboscanvolunteers. They did some research and found a university that had a robot that could do this for them, quickly and cheaply. So instead of using volunteers who could maybe scan 600 pages per week, they had a robot scan the magazines. Ultimately, the robot scanned 6410 pages from  331 magazines, in just 2 weeks. 

To make the information in the scanned articles accessible, the digitised magazines were published as 'flipping books', on their website.

Finnish Museum of the Deaf

In 2020 the exhibits of the Finnish Museum of the Deaf were catalogued and digitised by contract. What of the collections were revealed when one of the boxes in the collection was opened?

Finnish Sign Language and Finnish subtitles.





Print Email