BSL in museums

What is BSL?

There is no universal sign language, as local deaf communities developed their own form (as occurred with speech). Sign languages are not manual versions of the local spoken language, and it is not the case that a single sign matches or equals a word. When someone speaks and uses a BSL sign simultaneously, this is Signed Supported English (SSE), not BSL.  BSL is a very different language, with a recognisable set of grammatical rules and syntax. The British government formally recognised it as such in 2003. There are estimated to be 50,000-70,000 people in the UK who state BSL as their preferred language. BSL users define themselves as 'Deaf' rather than 'deaf', to signal their identity as a cultural/linguistic minority. 

BSL as a visual/spatial language

BSL is a visual language, with potential for iconicity and cinematic elements, such as zooming. Certain aspects of grammar are visualised, such as role shift, whereby the signer becomes the characters in a narrative, signifying the switches between them through posture, body language, facial expression, and eye gaze. This is broadly equivalent to direct speech in spoken language. 

BSL is also a spatial language, with the signing space a canvas for reproducing scenes. Interactions may be depicted through spatial verbs, such as exchanges between people and/or institutions. Abstract concepts may be indicated spatially, such as a family tree or hierarchical structure. 

Museum programmes

Public events may be interpreted into BSL to provide access for Deaf people.  Museums also run Deaf-led tours in BSL (sometimes with an interpreter providing an English voiceover). Some museums offer handheld video guides for use in the museum - for example, the British Museum's BSL guide contains nearly 40 clips on classical works alone. MANSIL will clarify and evaluate the variety in access provision across London. 

Using a visual language to communicate about visual art

Deaf people who are bilingual in BSL and English are aware that one engages with art differently when deploying a visual/signed or oral/written mode of communication. There is, however, no dedicated academic study of this phenomenon, and very little awareness of the mechanisms of visual languages among Humanities scholars. Studies through MANSIL and the 'Ways of Seeing' project will consider how this mode of communication facilitates an alternative type of description. 

Course Autumn 2019 application form

A course for BSL-users on the Parthenon will be held on Saturday 26 October and Saturday 23 November 2019 at King's, with optional visits to the British Museum. Please download the information and application form.