Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Carrying out a BSL Interpreted tour in a Museum – Jenny Hulmes

Since learning Level 1 British Sign Language last year, I’ve been interested in how Museum’s engage with deaf visitors. The Ashmolean Museum runs excellent interpreted tours for deaf visitors every three months which often involve object handling in the galleries, and ventures behind the scenes. The tours are led by the Museum’s Education Officer for Adults and Young People, and translated to the deaf visitors by two British Sign Language Interpreters. Two interpreters are booked to take it in turns to translate, as signing for a long period of time is tiring work and can induce RSI.


Last week, I was given the opportunity to lead an interpreted tour and chose to focus on the Ashmolean’s collection of European and East Asian ceramics. After greeting the deaf group at the main door, I led them to the Museum’s ‘West Meets East Gallery’, where we looked at East Asian influences on European culture, especially the rising popularity of tea in eighteenth-century England. I was fortunate that the Ashmolean Education Department has a fantastic handling collection, so brought some genuine Worcester teacups and a dessert plate into the galleries for the group to handle. Object handling in the galleries worked really well, as it provoked interesting responses from the group and provoked many to ask questions with the aid of the interpreters. For example, one gentleman had inherited a porcelain teapot from a family member and was keen to find out whether it was worth a penny or two! Having the handling objects there, also sparked conversations and reminiscences between members of the group. This was lovely to see as it increased the interactivity of the tour; however, it could be challenging when bringing the group back together to move the tour on. All in all I was very happy with how the tour went as the group seemed to enjoy it, especially hearing about unusual ceramics of the eighteenth-century, such as the puzzle jug, a vessel which was passed around pubs and challenged the holder to drink the alcoholic contents of the jug without spilling it down themselves; this could only be achieved by covering up all the holes around the rim with the fingers, then sucking on the spout. 

 This is my advice to anybody leading an interpreted tour in a Museum for the first time:  focus on objects which tell interesting stories; try to include object handling to raise the level of interactivity and engagement; choose spaces in the Museum which have good lighting so the interpreter’s signing can be seen clearly; find time to meet with the interpreters beforehand to go through what you’ll be talking about so they are prepared and know what to expect; and talk at an appropriate pace, being conscious of the Interpreter signing beside you. I started off the tour by talking a bit too fast, making it a challenge for the interpreter to catch up. I eventually found a suitable pace, glancing at the interpreter every so often to check that I wasn’t speeding ahead. I was worried that having the interpreter translating what I was saying, would be distracting, throwing me off course, but this wasn’t the case at all; it’s important to remember that the interpreters are there to facilitate, and that the focus of your attention as a tour guide, should always be on the individuals in the group. For example, when a deaf visitor asks a question ‘through’ an interpreter, your and eye-contact  should be with them, as opposed to the interpreter, which can sometimes be hard, especially as sign language is captivating to watch.


  1. Nice job! I'm an interpreter in the USA and you pointed out some very important information. Having 2 interpreters are needed, like you said, to lessen the risk of RSI. Meeting with them ahead of time, allows the interpreters to do their best interpretation (prior knowledge, ie. the goal of the subject being communicated and/or unusual words that need clarification are always helpful.) Not looking at the interpreter while addressing your client(s)..super important, since you are speaking to your client(s) not the interpreter. Not only does it shows understanding of proper etiquette, it also shows your client(s) you respect them and their language. As for talking too fast, that’s not a problem (if it was, the interpreter would let you know.) Interpreters need what we call ‘lag-time’, it’s normal for interpreters to behind in their interpretation since they are changing the communication from one language to another. What interpreters do is ‘interpret’ not translate. Overall, I really did enjoy your write up about working with interpreters and how you are engaging the deaf population in broadening their knowledge and understanding. ‘Knowledge itself is power.’ -Francis Bacon

  2. What a great opportunity for your Deaf visitors. It is obvious that you did your homework in preparing for this venture. As an interpreter, I appreciate the insight given by both your tour leader and by the commenter regarding the task being undertaken by the interpreter in this situation. Keep up the good work!

  3. Hello! I'm a sign language interpreter in the U.S. This is great!! You did a wonderful thing to include the deaf community. Nice job!!!

  4. Many thanks Julie, Patti and Amy for your encouragement. This is all new to me but I hope to do more tours with interpreters in the future. Good point Julie about the interpreter being there to interpret rather than translate: I'll remember that. Carrying out the tour made me appreciate the fantastic work you do as interpreters and how you play an invaluable role in supporting inclusion in museums and collections. Best wishes, Jenny