When you live in the Washington area, it’s easy to take museums for granted. DC offers some of the most impressive and unique in the country.
It has museums which are run by the Smithsonian and regularly land on tourist routes. Some of them: the National Museum of American History, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It has museums that are in populated areas and attract the curiosity of people who come across them. Some of them: the International Spy Museum, the National Geographic Museum and the Planet Word Museum.
The museum I visited on a recent afternoon would not fit into any of these categories. People in countries around the world might know about it, but you might live in DC and not know it exists. In a article Axios recently ran into a TikToker trying to visit all of DC’s museums, it’s listed at the bottom among “other museums you probably haven’t heard of”.
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I have explored many museums in the area, written about many of them, and had to repeatedly over the years have had to steer my bug-loving child away from the insect section of the National Museum of Art. natural History. But it wasn’t until a few days ago when a friend and his family came to town and invited me to join them on a scheduled visit that I heard about the National Deaf Life Museum.
The museum is not in a place that would allow a person to stumble upon it. It is on the Gallaudet University campus and currently requires an appointment to view.
The day we left, I took my 9 year old son, and my friend brought his family, including his 11 year old son who was born deaf.
I didn’t quite know what to expect. But in the end, after seeing the museum through their eyes, I came to see it in two ways. The first: as a place dedicated to the deaf community, not only. The second: as an example of the importance of representation.
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Museums should transport us and reflect us. They should let children tug on their parents’ hands to show them something new they have learned. My son shot me several times in that room in Chapel Hall, where there were a lot of exhibits.
Did you know that the football caucus was created by a deaf team? I haven’t done it to date.
“Inventing the Caucus,” reads the title of one of the panels in this room. Below is a photo of the Gallaudet football team in 1894. According to the story, that year the team was playing against another deaf team, and quarterback Paul Hubbard did not want the players opponents see the sign language he used to discuss plays. So, he told his team to huddle. This practice is now, of course, used across the world in different sports.
Another panel features a letter written by George HW Bush less than a year before he became president and about two years before he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. In it, he uses a search committee to select a university president who is not only highly qualified, but also deaf. After describing his work in the area of disability civil rights, he writes: “Through this experience, I became aware of the two basic principles that underpin the disability rights movement; the right of people with disabilities to control their own lives and the right to integration and participation in society.
Other exhibits and collections exist in various buildings on campus. One is “History Through Deaf Eyes”. Another is “deaf difference + survival in space”.
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During the latter, we learned that during the country’s space race with the Soviet Union, in an attempt to better understand motion sickness, NASA and the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine recruited 11 men deaf to participate in a study. The exhibit details what these men endured and what was discovered with their participation. They were known as “labyrinthine defectives”, a nod to the name of the organs in their inner ear that did not work and kept them from falling ill in conditions that would make others nauseous.
“The experiments continued for nearly a decade in weightless flight, in rotating devices, on board ship in turbulent seas, and in centrifuges,” reads the exhibit. “Due to the physiology of their inner ear, deaf subjects did not experience motion sickness.”
Compared to other DC museums, Gallaudet’s exhibits take up a tiny space. It can take more than a day to browse some of the Smithsonian’s museums. The National Deaf Life Museum, which opened in 2014, can be seen within hours.
Museum director Meredith M. Peruzzi, who is also a college graduate, said Chapel Hall had about 8,000 visitors a year before the pandemic. Current numbers have been harder to track.
Peruzzi described the museum as serving “a dual role” for these visitors. “For members of the deaf community, it’s a place to see each other, learn about their history and develop their sense of personal identity,” she said in an emailed statement. “For hearing visitors, this offers a chance to learn more about our culture, examine their own expectations and experiences of Deaf people, and feel the vibrancy of our signature community.”
By the end of our visit, my son had heard of a community that was not his own, and my friend’s son had come to an important conclusion about Gallaudet.
“I could see myself going here,” he said.