Life with Deaf Eyes: A Gallaudet University Exhibition

Deaf School Children, dancing
Deaf School Children, dancing

Through what lens do you observe and contextualize history?  Every individual has and uses a different lens by which to understand and construct meaning.  Sometimes because of our personal biases, we forget that there is more than one lens.  However, an exhibit by Gallaudet University entitled History Through Deaf Eyes challenges audiences to examine history, education, work, and daily life through another lens.

History Through Deaf Eyes is one element of a larger project, Deaf Eyes, which is sponsored by Gallaudet.  Deaf Eyes includes an exhibit, which has a traveling and online component, a documentary, and a supplemental book.  The goal of Deaf Eyes is to highlight Deaf history and to place it in the broader context of the U.S. [1] In particular, it examines how social, economic, and technological shifts in the U.S. have influenced Deaf lives.

Through Deaf Eyes is a documentary created and produced in association with Gallaudet University and PBS.  The film includes interviews from members of the Deaf community, as well as several short films created by Deaf media artists. [2] Gallaudet also created the book, Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community, which is based upon a 2001 exhibition at the Smithsonian.

Gallaudet’s social history exhibit highlights the shared experiences of the deaf community, exploring themes of family, work, and education.  Similarly, one of the exhibition’s goals is to examine the different ways by which deaf people see and define themselves.  To explore this story, the exhibit uses items from Gallaudet University’s archives, as well as objects collected from Deaf organizations and schools.  Moreover, the exhibit offers the opportunity for community participation, as many local individuals shared meaningful objects that describe and express their personal experiences.

The idea of seeking community participation in an exhibition is becoming more and more popular.  In many cases, these community-curated objects speak more to the stories of those represented in the exhibit, making them a social object.  Nina Simon describes a social object as “one that connect[s] the people who create, own, use, critique or consume it…facilitating exchanges among those who encounter them.” [3] By incorporating objects collected by deaf individuals, the exhibit eloquently expresses and shares the different ways deaf people see themselves within their communities.

It should be noted that History Through Deaf Eyes has two exhibition formats.  The first was a physical, traveling exhibition, which incorporated the objects from the local community.  From the information available at Gallaudet, it appears that the physical exhibit is no longer on tour.   The second exhibit is an online one, which did not include the community objects or several photographs from the physical exhibit due to copyright laws.

The online exhibit examines multiple facets of the Deaf community, including clubs and recreational organizations, education, daily life, and accessibility and awareness in the twenty-first century.  The exhibit includes various short introductory blurbs about each theme in the exhibit, as well as numerous photos, which include captions that not only described the image but also put the image into the context of deaf history.

It is interesting to note that this particular exhibit does not include any educational materials for students or teachers.  The closest element to instructional materials can be found on the PBS site, where a facilitation guide is provided for the documentary.  Why are there no educational materials?  Perhaps it has to do with the intended audience.  A number of the institutions that hosted the physical exhibition were Deaf schools and organizations.

Without or without the supplemental materials, the exhibit does convey the story and experience of the Deaf community in the broader context of U.S. history.  It challenges the lens that both the hearing and the deaf use to view the world.  As Jack R. Gannon, curator of the exhibit describes, “this exhibition is our untold and largely unknown history.  It is American history…Through Deaf Eyes.”


[1]  “About the History of Deaf Eyes Project,” Gallaudet University, accessed February 23, 2014, .

[2]  “Through Deaf Eyes,” PBS, accessed February 23, 2014,

[3] Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

One thought on “Life with Deaf Eyes: A Gallaudet University Exhibition

  1. The online exhibit is really interesting and very informative. I do think it would have been good to provide educational materials. While the majority of institutions that had the physical exhibit may have been Deaf schools or organizations I would think that ASL teacher would appreciate the supplemental materials.
    Somewhat off topic ABC Family has a TV show, “Switched At Birth,” that has revolved around the life of two girls who were switched at birth one who is hearing and one who is deaf. The show has covered some very interesting topics such as cochlear implants, differences between being born deaf and becoming deaf, and the tension between the deaf and hearing community. They did an almost entirely silent episode (season 2 episode 9) which was really interesting to watch as you had to pay attention to the screen to know what was happening. History Through Deaf Eyes appears to be over 10 years old now. I would be interested if they updated the parts of the exhibit that dealt with deafness and culture, what would be included and how have things changed?

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