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Preparation course for deaf tour guides: museum of Moscow

Vlad Kolesnikov—sign language teacher, speech therapist, sign language translator

Maria Sarycheva—culture scholar, curator


In 2015, after Garage initiated its first programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors to the Museum, many other museums—both private and public—joined the dialogue on increasing the accessibility of culture and art for the deaf community. The growth in the number of programs (and the resulting growth of their audience), combined with the creation of numerous initiatives both in Moscow and abroad, led us to think that perhaps we could go even further, joining forces with several other museums.

Russian Sign Language tours without the assistance of an interpreter (or in some cases, with reverse interpretation into spoken Russian) seemed like a completely logical step towards democratizing museum spaces and reducing the distance between hearing and non-hearing visitors at that time. The training program for deaf guides that we developed is unique: for the first time in Russia, tours are conducted in sign language from the outset, by the deaf, and for the deaf.

The prototype for our course was the training program for deaf guides at the Tate Gallery in London. However, given our decision to involve other Moscow institutions in the training process and due to the differing levels of education available to the deaf in the UK and Russia, we extended our program’s duration to one year (the course at Tate was designed for three months).

One of the conditions for participation in our program was an institution’s willingness to hire and/or invite participants to work on a permanent basis. This approach let us make the program modular. Each module was held in the facilities of different Moscow institutions, whose researchers delivered lectures and hosted practical classes inside the museums themselves. However, we understood that our course was not an educational program: a module based on a museum’s collection cannot in any way replace a specialized course that meets the standards of a higher education program. However, it can become a basis for developing further knowledge. For example, in 2016, a training course for 11 deaf tour guides was launched for Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the Tretyakov Gallery, and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA). This course’s indirect goal was to study and introduce a Russian Sign Language dictionary of modern art terms, recently developed by Garage’s inclusive programs department and a group of independent experts who are native speakers of Russian Sign Language, into permanent use.

Polina Zotova, a researcher at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, described the program as follows:

— For MMOMA, the availability of both exhibition and educational programs for all categories of visitors is extremely important. We believe that visiting a museum is an opportunity to gain new knowledge and experiences while forming an emotional picture of the world. In order for this process to flow more naturally, visitors should come into contact with the museum in conditions that are comfortable for them, in a language that they understand. At the moment, the museum community plays host to a number of isolated sign language programs, primarily involving sign language interpreters. Trained art specialists from the deaf community are almost non-existent, as are trained guides. Yet, these are the exact people who could become cultural guides for the deaf community. These people’s mission is to be the “face” of the deaf visitor community, uniting them and creating a center of attraction in the museum. That is why we supported the Garage’s training initiative for deaf interpreters. First of all, we planned to introduce future guides to contemporary art, which can raise questions even for a sophisticated viewer; we developed skills in analysis and critical understanding of works of art, and also demonstrated by example how such difficult material can be presented.

In October 2016, Garage opened applications: potential participants in the program had to be students or recent graduates of a humanities program, love contemporary art, and want to do everything in their power to make it even more popular. They had to be open to new knowledge about modern art and museums and be ready to learn new skills to interact with audiences and conduct tours in Russian Sign Language.

In addition to classes in art history, museology, and lectures based on the collections of participating institutions, the course included master classes in information management, independent research, presentation skills, and Russian Sign Language.

Participants in the course had to devote a lot of time to training while regularly doing independent work with texts and video materials. A monthly stipend of 10,000 roubles was also provided.

The course was attended by students of an extraordinarily wide spectrum of professions and age groups, with an equally broad range of reasons for participating. For example, Victoria Berlizova noted the lack of tour programs for deaf children and teenagers as her motivation for participating, while Svetlana Bobkova was driven to participate by the opportunity to learn directly from museum specialists. We tried to ensure that each of the future guides used their individual knowledge bases, storytelling skills, and speaking style throughout the training.

Polina Zotova described one of the lessons as follows:

— The lectures were compiled with the level of the audience’s training in mind: the lecture part combined historical and cultural components since the task was to immerse the audience in the context and recall the country’s history during the selected period, all while forming an idea of how and why Russian contemporary art developed the way that it did. Accordingly, the presentations for the classes included photos and newsreels from those years; fragments of films dedicated to artists or significant events in the country’s history; photos of newspaper and magazine spreads... The lecture material contained more than just characteristics of the historical period and trends in art; it also featured anecdotal cases or illustrative facts from the life of the country and personal stories and quotes from artists. Each session encouraged feedback and discussion as much as possible: participants were asked questions and had the opportunity to ask questions in return. In order to reinforce the material learned, a practical lesson followed each of the lectures, during which students performed various tasks—from creating collages to analyzing paintings. The practical component of the classes was aimed at personally absorbing and experiencing the material presented in the lecture part.

Under the guidance of Russian and foreign experts, including museologists, cultural scholars, art historians, and historians, course participants gained knowledge on art history, became acquainted with the structure of modern museums, and conducted their own tours, visited by more than 290 people overall. Each block of the program culminated in a test and defense of the tour route for the commission, made up of the program creators, an employee of the cultural institution, and deaf visitors. On February 9, 2018, Anton Belov, Director of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, presented certificates of completion to Victoria Berlizova, Svetlana Bobkova, Mikhail Veselov, Artur Vodolagin, Valentina Danilova, Anna Doronkova, Lyudmila Zhadan, Pavel Rodionov, and Gennady Tikhenko. The new guides decided to form an organization called Zhest v muzee (Gesture in the Museum) to conduct sign language tours in various cultural institutions around Moscow and promote art among the deaf and hard of hearing.

The main difficulties encountered by course participants can be summarised as follows:

  • large amounts of knowledge about culture and art that needed to be mastered in a tight timeframe;
  • lack of essay-writing skills (an alternative of creating a story in RSL was offered);
  • little practice in speaking RSL, as well as general confusion and uncertainty (for this reason, one of the modules was led by director and actor of the Nedoslov Theatre Alexey Znamensky, on self-presentation and expressiveness in sign language).

As the creators of the course, we believe that its main task is not to teach a person how to be a guide but to provide new knowledge, structure existing knowledge, and support each of the participants in presenting the material in their individual way. With their extensive experience in preparing mediation programs, Garage’s educational department employees tried to point out the many different styles in which tours can be conducted, ways to hold an audience’s attention, and the degree to which routes can vary from to institution. However, many of the participants noted that they considered this approach a disadvantage and would have liked the program to provide “recipes” for successful routes.

It is not easy to measure the effectiveness of such programs. However, we are confident that in addition to cascading dissemination of knowledge, increasing the visibility of the deaf inside the Museum, and increasing the number of deaf visitors to cultural institutions, this program will change (and is already changing) the delicate processes within institutions. At the moment, the course’s participants are building relationships with teams at Moscow’s museums, developing new professional relationships, and practicing new professional ethics based on solidarity.

This is how Svetlana Bobkova, one of the course participants, describes the current mode of existence for tour guides:

— “Gesture in the Museum” is a community of deaf guides. Our goal is to make museums accessible to the deaf without an interpreter. It is important for us to speak the same language as our visitors, and this is how our name came to be. We want to work in different museums without competing or luring audiences from one place to another. We try to make our tour schedules as different as possible, and we prepare tours for different age categories: for adults, for children… Our guides are also not the same: some speak Russian Sign Language, while others use Sign Supported Russian, and each of them attracts their own audience. The process of interacting and working with museums has not yet reached a common standard, but a general outline already exists: we divide up our resources, deciding who is preparing which exhibition; the museum provides materials for preparation; then certification is carried out, with the delivery of a tour route to the museum’s staff with the help of a sign language interpreter. At first, we brought audiences to these tours together and helped each other, but now our information page on Facebook, as well as on other social networks, can promote us as well. Museums also have channels for publishing information on social networks: for example, the “Garage for the Deaf” and “Pushkin for All” groups. There may be others coming soon. We would like to work not only with museums of fine or modern art but also with estate and park complexes and historical museums—or even conduct tours around the city.

The experience in developing and testing such training programs for guides has been an experience of trust on the part of the institution, in addition to the active position of the guides themselves and their interest in creating new audiences, new knowledge, and new social situations. It is vital that such programs are based on cooperation: between sign language interpreters and museum staff, between institutions and freelance guides, and between tour guides and those who have yet to visit these museums.

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