July 06, 2020
Author: Meredith Peruzzi
Museums show history and also interpret the meaning of photographs and objects on display. In text and sign, museums can address current topics, including racism.
When museums make mistakes, it is their job to own up to and correct these mistakes. Museums are not neutral. In 2014, when Gallaudet University observed its sesquicentennial, the National Deaf Life Museum opened its “Gallaudet at 150” exhibition in Chapel Hall. One panel in this exhibition includes a photograph of an 1888 H.O.S.S. event. Members of the all-male, all-white organization are shown wearing white robes with hoods. This evokes racist ideology to the viewer. Regardless of the fraternity’s intent at that time, seeing this ideology depicted is harmful, and it must be called out.
The caption accompanying this photograph does not provide sufficient information to help visitors understand its meaning or context. The Museum simply did not adequately describe this image and, by so doing, address our institution’s history.
The National Deaf Life Museum is currently closed, along with the university. As soon as the university reopens, the caption will be revised. The new caption will be written in partnership with Black Deaf members of the university community.
The Museum expresses its appreciation to the community members who pointed out this problematic description, both in the past and more recently. The Museum staff recognizes that the photograph has been displayed without proper context for a long time, and apologizes to those who have been hurt by its presence.
In the coming months, the National Deaf Life Museum will expand its presentation of images, films, documents, objects, and texts to help visitors understand the history of systemic racism at Gallaudet University. We are working with Black Deaf curatorial leadership on this initiative. Your input is welcome. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.