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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Signs and Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts

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I do not care what the “deaf culture” do with their lives. If they want to go off into a ghetto, that’s fine with me. Just don’t try to drag me, and others like me, along with you.
                                                      —A letter to Silent News,
                                           A Deaf Community Publication[4]

Thanks to Deaf culture, I have thrived as a Deaf person. . . . Deaf culture is real and is a part of American history.
—A Deaf adult who used pure oralism in his early years[5]

YOUR PROPOSED EXHIBIT OF DEAF AMERICANS EXCLUDES ME!! [Followed by a picture of a child.] PLEASE REMEMBER THOSE OF US WHO HAVE CHOSEN TO BE AURAL AND ORAL—WE ARE PART OF THE HISTORY AND THE FUTURE
                                                                              —A parent[6]

The Smithsonian . . . is in a unique position. You have the opportunity to strike down barriers and open up doors. . . . For those who are not familiar with deaf culture and the deaf community, you have the rare opportunity to open their world. To paraphrase Jesse Jackson, the problem is not that the deaf can’t hear, it’s that the hearing world doesn’t listen.
                            —A hearing visitor to the Smithsonian[7]

In the early 1990s, Gallaudet University and the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., planned a joint production, a permanent exhibition called “DEAF: A Community of Signers.” However, as a result of a series of conflicts over the original conception, the focus changed, and the exhibition became a traveling installation called “History through Deaf Eyes.” A committee based at Gallaudet University handled the design and fundraising, and the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building eventually became the host site for one of the exhibition’s early postings. In moving from “DEAF” to “Deaf Eyes,” this particular exhibition sheds light on American d/Deaf identities and the conflicted nature of representation. It also shows how hearing, deaf, and culturally Deaf people define and describe themselves and others in relation to the concept of a subjectivity that sees through “Deaf  eyes.”

In its original conception as “DEAF: A Community of Signers,” the exhibition set out to provide a series of short narratives that would inform and educate a hearing audience. As such, it was intended to focus upon signing Deaf people as members of a unique sociolinguistic community. In the early stages, the planning committee deliberated on what one idea, one concept, they wanted visitors to understand. That one idea was to show the audience an alternative narrative concerning Deaf people, a group that many hearing visitors would know simply as a subsection of the disabled population. Hearing people with no knowledge of the Deaf community or of Deaf history were the intended audience of the original exhibition According to exhibition director Jean L. Bergey, viewers would feel as though they had “met” a Deaf person.[8]


4. Wells 1994.

5. Letter to the Smithsonian, April 22, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

6. Letter to the Smithsonian, February 16, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

7. Letter to the Smithsonian, May 27, 1996. Gallaudet University Archives.

8. Jean Bergey, personal communication with author, June 25, 2004.


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