San Francisco Museum of Asian Art Tour in Sign Language
To broaden accessibility, the Asian Art Museum (AAM) in San Francisco has begun including audio descriptions as well as captions for videos displayed in its galleries. But when deaf people expressed that the captions weren’t enough — and the text was completely different from American Sign Language — staff members decided to hold a digital tour in ASL starting at 17. museum masterpieces including the Hindu deity Parvati, a ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros, and a Korean moon pot. And they turned to experts for help.
They chose Sam Sepah, an accessibility research product manager in Silicon Valley, as their consultant. He helped launch guides for the tour, available as an app for iOS and Android and on YouTube, and brought in Linda Bove, who has appeared on sesame street from 1971 to 2002 as Linda the Librarian – the first deaf actor to be part of the recurring cast of the children’s show. Due to her experience with film and television, Sepah says Bove understood how to train people to be in front of the camera, making sure the signer’s hands were completely in the frame of the video and the lighting showed their expressions.
“I wanted to explore the best solution in terms of translation,” Bove told Hyperallergic during a video call with Sepah and an interpreter. “It’s a visual language, and we have to frame it properly in the lens. I see the process as a choreography – they are two completely different languages.
You can appreciate details and intricacies in an ASL tour that you couldn’t appreciate in a spoken-word tour, Sepah added. Bove noticed, for example, that when someone signed the dimensions of a cup, they made it look about the size of a fist. But in reality, the object was much smaller – the size of a thimble. “You have to use the right hand shapes to convey common sense, so it does justice to the artwork,” Sepah said. “Linda kept that in check, and she helped us describe a lot more with our hands.”
Sepah added that since ASL performers use facial expressions as well as their hands, there is more nuance to their tours. “There’s more color and context,” he said. “For example, if you talk about an old ceramic bowl, you can show with your expression how fragile it is. With English, you could say it’s very old.
They both visited the museum (Bove lives in Arizona and Sepah lives in Silicon Valley) and worked for months with the team there, interviewing the project guides – who are all Asian and deaf – about their backgrounds and their art knowledge and translating the tours. in ASL.
Their work impacted Michelle Yook, vice president of the Bay Area Asian Deaf Association, who discovered the masterpieces on YouTube. She commends the museum for finding deaf teachers because translating English into ASL is difficult, she says.
“I was very impressed with how beautifully AAM integrated ASL translations into AAM’s visually striking artwork,” Yook said in an email to Hyperallergic.
At the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, ASL tours began in 2016, when the institution paired trained interpreters with guides, says Houghton Kinsman, Crocker’s adult education coordinator. A deaf guide started working at the museum in 2019, and she gives a tour one Sunday a month which has become very popular.
Kinsman says people can also request an interpreter for museum programs, but a few years ago, at an exhibit of the work of Granville Redmond (a California School of the Deaf graduate), Kinsman arranged for that performers participate in programs regardless of requests. The positive feedback he received through surveys and direct emails, Kinsman says, made him realize the importance of expanded access. “The number of people who showed up and benefited from it allowed me to put things into perspective,” he told Hyperallergic. “People can just attend without continually asking for an interpreter.”
Karen Berniker, director of access to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), says their program is the oldest of any museum in the country — it’s more than 40 years since the Berkeley advocacy group, DEAF Media, worked with FAMSF to start Docents for the Deaf in 1975. Today, the museum hires interpreters to lead two to six ASL tours of major exhibits, each with around 30 attendees (one current exhibit, Ramses the Great and the gold of the pharaohs, has three tours planned). And all ASL tours of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art are led by deaf people and have been for 10 years, according to associate director of accessibility Francisco Echo Eraso.
Bove thinks access to programs like the Asian Art Museum could be especially helpful for children. On sesame streetshe says, she noticed how much all the kids loved ASL.
“It makes so much more sense whether you’re hearing or deaf. I would say their natural language is sign language because they are all visual,” she said. “And it’s so great for deaf kids to have a place to get this kind of information and be proud of their culture.”