Science museum

The Science Museum Group launches its new project, “Signing Science”

John Wilson is working with the Science Museum Group (SMG) on a new project called “Signing Science”. It will review the provision of British Sign Language for deaf and hard of hearing audiences in SMG, leading to recommendations for future action.

All museums, exhibitions and events are under review across the UK, including digital information. I spoke to John to find out more.

Hi Jean, can you tell us a bit more about yourself? What kind of fields do you work in?

My name is John Wilson, I am profoundly deaf and I use BSL. I’ve always been interested in what people call culture in a broad sense – history and all the different types of arts and places you go to find out more, museums and galleries. When I was younger, I mainly focused on Deaf history. I worked behind the scenes at the British Museum and it was there that I began my mission to make deaf culture and history accessible to the deaf community.

I do this through BSL, both by opening mainstream culture to deaf audiences by promoting deaf arts and also by creating opportunities for deaf people to work in galleries and museums. One example is the Deaf Guides training that I worked on in partnership with Tate Modern. This has remained the common thread of my professional and voluntary work.

More recently, I have especially enjoyed leading groups of deaf people, using BSL, on tours and lectures at some of the world’s best-known museums and galleries to introduce them to the collection or special exhibitions. I’ve done this in most world famous galleries and museums in London and elsewhere – including the Science Museum.

I am always aware that access to museums for Deaf people has been piecemeal, exhibition by exhibition and project by project, with nothing in the long term. The situation has been made worse by the pandemic, as several projects that were underway before 2020 have obviously been put on hold and show no signs of restarting.

I can say that I now have great experience of the barriers that prevent Deaf people from getting the most out of what organizations offer and how to overcome these barriers. So when the Science Museum Group announced they wanted to tackle it too, I jumped at the chance to work with them.

The Science Museum Group is, after all, the world’s premier museum for the history of science, technology, industry and medicine along with the Science Museum in London, the National Railway Museum in York and Locomotion: the National Railway Museum in Shildon. There is also the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, as well as the collections in storage at Olympia and Wiltshire.

Where did this initiative come from – to examine the provision and accessibility of BSL?

The Science Museum Group recently created two new roles focused on access, inclusion and diversity; one responsible for their public offering and the other for the internal workforce. Part of their role is to share best practices and have a more consistent approach to accessibility across museum sites.

There is already a commitment to including British Sign Language in major new gallery developments and there are events run or performed by the deaf, but rather than looking at these on a project-by-project basis, they saw the need to take step back and look at the bigger picture in consultation with d/Deaf people. The outcomes of the project have not been defined – this is really the start of a conversation that we hope will pave the way for more partnerships and projects to make the Science Museum Group a more welcoming place to BSL users.

How were you approached for your involvement in this project, and what responsibilities will you have throughout?

I was not approached for this project as such. Instead, the Science Museum Group launched a procurement process, inviting interested individuals to submit a bid to complete the work. Fortunately for me, when all the criteria were applied and the submissions were evaluated, my application was accepted.

I have now begun to work closely with the Science Museum staff to move the project forward. We will work with the various museums in the group, looking at how they engage with deaf communities in their part of the country, working on actions to improve that engagement. Emphasis will be placed on using BSL as the primary form of communication.

This then opens up the challenge of how to use BSL to communicate awareness and information about science subjects – the so-called STEM subjects, which are science, technology, engineering and math.

How long will the project take to review all the museums, exhibitions and events?

The project will last one year. The first phase includes site visits and meetings with the staff of each museum. At the same time, we will hold discussions with an advisory group made up of BSL users with ties to STEM or the museum sector.

There are a few gallery developments in the works and although we are unable to review specific projects in detail, the recommendations we make will inform and influence this work.

Will you work with other BSL consultants?

I am the only BSL consultant that the Science Museum Group will be working with on this particular project, but we will be involving a lot of deaf people. I have already recruited a group of ten deaf people with an interest in different aspects of the project to act as an advisory group. We will also involve local communities, through deaf clubs and others, when exploring and developing different ideas for the different museums.

As it stands, how accessible do you think STEM subjects are for students using BSL?

This is a difficult question to answer at this time – it will be part of our background research on this whole topic. But I think it’s important to say that the main goal of this project is to make the work of museums in the science museums group more accessible and relevant to deaf communities.

We are not trying to improve STEM education in schools and colleges, but focus on the contribution the group can make by using BSL to make its vast stores of information accessible to pupils and students – encouraging young deaf people to get involved in STEM subjects. and ensure that the language they use to talk about it is consistent, relevant and not confusing.

What do you personally think of the science BSL offer – is it something you personally would have found useful while studying?

Science wasn’t one of my strongest subjects in school. I showed no aptitude for physics or chemistry, but loved biology and continued to study and take exams in that subject at university after leaving school. However, two of my classmates earned doctorates in astrophysics after leaving school.

However, I have always been fascinated by scientific achievements such as the moon landings, which I have followed closely. What I really wanted to do was bring Deaf History out of obscurity and part of that for me was the unsung achievements of Deaf scientists.

I worked with the National Maritime Museum to design a play about John Goodricke, the deaf amateur astronomer who is best known for his observations of the variable star Algol in 1782. I was adamant that he be played by a deaf actor and we recruited a deaf Actor to play him at the National Maritime Museum.

When the play moved to the Science Museum, I took on the role myself, with an interpreter providing voiceover for hearing viewers. The play was very well received and was taken over by other deaf actors later. It also won the Best Access Project award from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

I went into a bit of detail about this project because I feel like it’s the kind of approach that could be replicated in other places and really engages Deaf visitors and BSL users. Of course, we are also very interested in the fantastic deaf-led collaboration at the Scottish Sensory Center to design, agree and disseminate new BSL signs in STEM subjects and the Signing Science project is a great opportunity to reflect on how to s involve in this.

We want to be open to new ideas and best practices wherever we find them and especially ideas advanced and developed with Deaf people.

My role is to bring people together and help them develop ideas, then turn them into recommendations for the Science Museum Group.

Image of John Wilson in the costume of John Goodricke, the deaf amateur astronomer.

The Limping Chicken will follow the outcome of this research with keen interest and report back when the project is complete.

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