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A national museum about – but not just for – the deaf community

A person could live in Washington and never know about the National Deaf Life Museum. But visitors come from across the world.

The National Deaf Life Museum sits on the campus of Gallaudet University. (Courtesy of Gallaudet University)

On a desk inside a museum tucked into a building in the nation’s capital sits a book. It’s not an exhibit, but it is revealing.

It’s a guest book, and a glance through its pages shows that people have come from near and far to visit the museum. Among the places they have listed as home: Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Texas, Germany, Brazil, Peru, Rwanda and Russia.

When you live in the Washington region, it’s easy to take museums for granted. D.C. offers some of the country’s most impressive and distinctive ones.

It has museums that are run by the Smithsonian and regularly land on the itineraries of tourists. Some of those: 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 sit in populated areas and yank at the curiosity of people who walk past them. Some of those: the International Spy Museum, the National Geographic Museum and Planet Word Museum.

The museum I visited on a recent afternoon would not fall into either of those categories. People in countries across the world may know about it, but you could live in D.C. and not know it exists. In an article Axios recently ran about a TikToker who is trying to visit every museum in D.C., it is listed at the bottom among “other museums you probably haven’t heard of.”

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I’ve explored many museums in the region, written about several of them and, over the years, have had to repeatedly pry my bug-loving child away from the insect section at the National Museum of Natural History. But it wasn’t until several days ago, when a friend and his family came into town and invited me to join them on a scheduled tour that I learned about the National Deaf Life Museum.

The museum is not in a place that would allow a person to just happen upon it. It sits on the campus of Gallaudet University and currently you have to make an appointment to visit it.

On the day we went, I took my 9-year-old son, and my friend took his family, including his 11-year-old son who was born deaf.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. But by the end, after seeing the museum through their eyes, I came to view it in two ways. The first: as a place about, not just for, the deaf community. The second: as an example of why representation matters.

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Museums should transport us and reflect us. They should leave children pulling at their parents’ hands to show them something new they learned. My son tugged at me several times in that room in Chapel Hall, where many of the exhibits sat.

Did you know that the football huddle was created by a deaf team? I didn’t, until that day.

“Inventing the huddle,” reads the title of one of the panels in that room. Below it appears a photo of the Gallaudet football team in 1894. As the story goes, that year, the team was playing against another deaf team, and quarterback Paul Hubbard didn’t want the opposing players to see the sign language he was using to discuss plays. So, he told his team to huddle. That practice is now, of course, used across the world in different sports.

Another panel features a letter written by George H.W. Bush less than a year before he would become president and about two years before he would sign the Americans With Disabilities Act. In it, he calls on a search committee to select a university president who was not only highly qualified, but who was also deaf. After describing his work in the area of disability civil rights, he writes: “From this experience, I have become aware of the two basic principles that underlay the disability rights movement; the right of disabled people to control their own lives and the right to integration and involvement in society.”

Other exhibits and collections exist in different buildings on the campus. One is “History Through Deaf Eyes.” Another is the “Deaf Difference + Space Survival.”

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At 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 U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine recruited 11 deaf men to participate in a study. The exhibit details what those men endured and what was discovered with their participation. They were known as the “Labyrinthine Defectives,” a nod to the name of the organs in their inner ear that didn’t function and allowed them not to get sick in conditions that would make others nauseous.

“Experiments continued for nearly a decade on zero-gravity flights, in rotating devices, on board a ship across turbulent seas and in centrifuges,” reads the exhibit. “Because of their inner ear physiology, the deaf test subjects did not get motion sickness.”

Compared to other D.C. museums, the exhibits at Gallaudet take a minuscule amount of space. It can take more than a day to get through some of the Smithsonian museums. The National Deaf Life Museum, which opened in 2014, can be seen in a few hours.

Museum Director Meredith M. Peruzzi, who is also a graduate of the university, said that Chapel Hall saw about 8,000 visitors a year before the pandemic. Current numbers have been more difficult to track.

Peruzzi described the museum as serving “a dual role” for those visitors. “For members of the Deaf community, it is a place to see themselves, learn about their history, and develop their sense of personal identity,” she said in an emailed statement. “For hearing visitors, it offers a chance to learn about our culture, examine their own expectations and experiences of Deaf people, and feel the vibrancy of our signing community.”

By the end of our visit, my son had learned about 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.