Art Signs Online, Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Art Signs Online, Smithsonian Museum of American Art

2010 International Award Commendation

Exemplary Qualities

Art Signs Online is one of the few museums in the US and worldwide to present collections online in Sign Language for deaf people. The online collection in American Sign Language is small. However, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is committed to increasing the Arts Signs Online collections year by year. It is one of the very few museums in the world to make such a commitment.

Art Signs Online is a compelling example of achieving sustainable growth with restricted means. If a number of museums adopted this approach to widen access to museum collections for deaf people, visually impaired people or people with learning difficulties, the accessible cultural offer would increase significantly globally.

At a time when sub-titling is all too quickly provided as the only ‘concession’ to deaf people, it is important to remember that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008) recognises deaf people as a linguistic and cultural minority. Many born deaf people have poor (alphabetical) literacy skills. Wherever possible, cultural organisations should meet deaf people on their own terms. Arts Signs Online thoroughly involved deaf people in the project and established a very promising longer term relationship with the world famous Gallaudet University for deaf students.

The Project

Art Signs Online is a digital asset within the American Art Museum website. Launched in January 2010, it is an adaptation of the Art Signs in-gallery program in which deaf Gallery Guides lead conversations about artworks with deaf and hearing audiences. Art Signs Online offers a video clip glimpse of the in-gallery program and a menu of three to five-minute presentations by each Art Signs Gallery Guide, signed in American Sign Language (ASL) and close-captioned.

Art Signs in-gallery and Art Signs Online place deaf adults in leadership roles for their peers and hearing visitors in a public and respected setting. Placing deaf people in positions of authority within the Smithsonian American Art Museum elevates credibility within the deaf community and so increases attendance by this audience segment.

Art Signs in-gallery and Art Signs Online open the Smithsonian American Art Museum to a new audience and empower that audience to apply skills learned with Art Signs at other museums and cultural settings. Responses are glowing, in part perhaps due to the setting and the invigorating and engaging exchanges, but also because no other museum in the area offers comparable opportunities.

Other Activities

Recent exhibition labels have been placed at a height for visitors in wheelchairs and in a larger point size for easier reading. In-gallery videos are captioned. In addition, our Education Department works with Special Olympics to regularly host adolescents with special needs and supervised a mobility impaired graduate student intern for one semester.

The museum offers Touch Tours for blind and low-vision visitors by appointment and has secured grant funds to pilot a regularly scheduled program. In the up-coming exploratory year with the Poet in Residence, the museum will include deaf and hard of hearing visitors.

In collaboration with the District of Columbia’s Martin Luther King Library, Adaptive Services Program, the museum has created audio versions of printed materials related to exhibitions and public programs. ASL interpreters are available at many lectures, symposia, public programs, and always available upon request.

In 2010, the Education Department convened two sessions at national professional meetings to showcase programs developed by a dozen art museums for visitors who are blind or low vision, cognitively impaired, deaf or hard of hearing. Three Art Signs Gallery Guides were presenters.


Deaf faculty, staff and students from the world-renowned Gallaudet University, the first school for advanced education of deaf and hard of hearing students in the world, were central to the program development and are key to implementation of Art Signs in-gallery and Art Signs Online versions.

Art Signs in both formats exists because a deaf person asked if she could be an American Art Museum docent. In development of the in-gallery phase, deaf faculty, staff and students of Gallaudet University were consulted about recruitment and marketing. Deaf Art Signs Gallery Guides conduct monthly discussions about the American Art Museum’s artworks for a deaf and hearing public. The Art Signs in-gallery phase morphed into Art Signs Online which, in turn was adapted to bring the Museumís collections to blind and low-vision online visitors.

As with hearing visitors, Art Signs uses a positive and supportive conversational exchange model of focused looking, questioning, and observing between audience and leader. Visitors are invited to spend a few minutes examining the artwork and share their findings – objective and affective.

The Gallery Guide acts as mediator deftly connecting comments, adding information, eliciting a second look and more reflective questions through shared consideration of visual images. A key Art Signs’ goal is to help the visitors gain self-confidence in the Museum, in fact, to make them comfortable within all museums.

Art Signs Online visitors’ comments:

“I was truly glad viewing various ASL art sign videos available via online. They are captivating and inspiring! I have learned to appreciate Art more that it provides a statement about each artist’s purpose and event. Many thanks to Smithsonian American Art Museum supporters!”

“As a program coordinator, I often struggle to find engaging and accessible resources for our interns. With ASL, captioning and video description, your website offers a superior service. We at AAPD are thrilled to see this (Art Signs Online) project progressing.” American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)

“I was inspired to start learning sign language by work I did on some early sign language guides for other museums. Art Signs Online has reinvigorated my interest in learning American Sign Language.”


In December 2010, the museum will add verbal description and audio versions of the ASL interpretations by Art Signs guides for blind and low-vision audiences

Art Signs Online will grow year by year.

In 2011 additional Art Signs Gallery Guides will be recruited and trained whose in-gallery interpretations will become digital assets in Art Signs Online and then translated into a resource for blind and low-vision online visitors.

For the second year, the Education Department will host 100 incoming freshmen to Gallaudet University for a half-day orientation to the American Art Museum. Students will learn about Art Signs Online and experience Art Signs in-gallery as part of their program.