A still from an “Asian Art in ASL” tour focused on a Korean moon jar in the museum’s collection (all screenshots Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

To broaden accessibility, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (AAM) started including audio descriptions as well as captions for videos displayed in its galleries. But when Deaf people expressed that captions weren’t enough — and that text was completely different from American Sign Language — staff members decided to put together a digital tour in ASL starting with 17 of the museum’s masterpieces, including the Hindu deity Parvati, a ritual vessel shaped like a rhinoceros, and a Korean moon jar. And they turned to experts for help. 

They chose Sam Sepah, an accessibility research product manager in Silicon Valley, as a consultant. He helped cast docents for the tour, available as an app for iOS and Android and on YouTube, and brought in Linda Bove, who appeared on Sesame Street from 1971 to 2002 as Linda the Librarian — the first Deaf actor to be part of the children show’s recurring cast. Because of her experience with film and TV, Sepah says Bove understood how to coach people to be on camera, ensuring the signer’s hands were completely in the frame of the video and the lighting showed their expressions. 

Linda Bove (photo courtesy the Sesame Workshop)

“I wanted to explore the best fit in terms of translation,” Bove told Hyperallergic on a video call with Sepah and an interpreter. “It’s a visual language, and we have to frame it correctly in the lens. I think of the process as choreography — they’re two completely different languages.”

You can appreciate details and subtlety in an ASL tour that you might not during a speaking one, Sepah added. Bove noticed, for instance, that when someone was signing the dimensions of a cup, he made it seem 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 the right meaning, so it does justice to the artwork,” Sepah said. “Linda kept on top of that, and she helped us describe a lot more with our hands.” 

Sepah added that since ASL interpreters use facial expressions as well as their hands, there’s more nuance in their tours. “There’s more color and context,” he said. “For example, if you’re talking about an old ceramic bowl, you can show with your expression how fragile it is. With English you might just say it’s very old.”

They both visited the museum (Bove lives in Arizona and Sepah in Silicon Valley) and worked for months with the team there, interviewing the docents on the project — who are all Asian and Deaf — about their backgrounds and knowledge of art and translating the tours into ASL. 

The ASL Tour production team, front row: Lorraine Goodwin, Churyl Zeviar, Wonha Park, Linda Bove, Sam Sepah; back row: Dwight Burks, Adam Kennedy, Joshua Guerci (photo courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Their work had an impact on Michelle Yook, vice president of the Bay Area Asian Deaf Association, who learned about the masterpieces on YouTube. She applauds the museum for finding Deaf docents, since it’s challenging to translate English into ASL, she says. 

“I was very impressed by how beautifully AAM integrated ASL translations into the visually striking artworks of the AAM,” Yook said in an email to Hyperallergic. 

At Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, ASL tours started in 2016, when the institution paired training interpreters with docents, says Houghton Kinsman, the Crocker’s adult education coordinator. A Deaf docent started working at the museum in 2019, and she gives a tour one Sunday a month that has become very popular. 

Kinsman says people can also request an interpreter for programs at the museum, but a couple of years ago, during an exhibition of the work of Granville Redmond (a graduate of the California School of the Deaf), Kinsman arranged for interpreters at programs regardless of requests. The positive feedback he got through surveys and direct emails, Kinsman says, made him realize the importance of expanded access. “The amount of people who showed up that benefited from them put it into perspective for me,” he told Hyperallergic. “People can just attend without continually asking for an interpreter.”

Karen Berniker, director of access at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), says their program is the longest-running of any museum in the country — it’s been more than 40 years since Berkeley’s advocacy group, DEAF Media, worked with FAMSF to start Docents for the Deaf in 1975. Now, the museum hires interpreters to lead two to six ASL tours of major exhibitions, each hosting around 30 participants (a current exhibition, Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs, has three tours scheduled). And all the ASL tours at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art are Deaf-led and have been for the last 10 years, according to the associate director of accessibility, Francisco Echo Eraso.

YouTube video

Bove thinks access to programs like the one at the Asian Art Museum could be especially helpful for children. On Sesame Street, she says, she noticed how much all children liked ASL.

“It just makes so much more sense whether you’re hearing or Deaf. I’d say their natural language is sign language because they’re all visual,” she said. “And it’s so great for Deaf children to have a place to get this type of information and feel pride in their culture.”

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...