Talk: The Exhibition

Feb 14, 2022 | Blog, Museum

Clare Mills, detail showing The Exhibition process of collaboration

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of speaking about my Deafness Exhibition Project at the Wellcome HSS Centres joined meeting. The theme was ‘collaboration’ in the medical humanities. This blog covers some of what I talked about and includes a fantastic graphic by Clare Mills from ListenThinkDraw.

My mini-lecture was part of the sessions titled ‘Types of Collaboration’. How would I describe the type of collaboration I’m currently involved in? My suggestion was: polyphony.

My general research project is about the history of deafness and hardness of hearing. A central part is the making of an Exhibition about the healthcare barriers that many Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) people experience. This exhibition is planned to open this summer in the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and will be used in the Diversity & Inclusion curriculum for the medical students.

But when starting the project, the question soon arose: how to make this Exhibition? Inspiration came from the newly proposed definition of museums:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.


Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing. (ICOM, 2019)

So, when starting to develop the Exhibition in fall 2020, I first built capacity: I invited colleagues who are experts in relevant fields as well as expert-by-experience and representing an important community. I invited Deaf education professionals, young members of the Dutch Association for Deaf people, representatives of the Rotterdam Association for Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing people, CI-users, a Hearing Coach, and a colleague from the Dutch Mental Health and Social Services, as well as colleagues at the Medical Centre: an ENT-physician, an audiologist, a HH clinician, a D&I lecturer. Many were honoured and excited to participate. In the first meeting, they proclaimed themselves as the Expert Group. And 18 months later, the group is still going strong.

But as you can imagine, the first meetings and the brainstorm sessions were very polyphonic indeed. For a start, the sessions are in multiple languages – Dutch and Dutch Sign Language, both spoken and in text thanks to Sign and speech-to-text interpreters. The abundance of ideas were fantastic, but could sometimes be contrasting. It was overwhelming, but also proof of the enthusiasm and sense of urgency for the project.

Four heads with Sign Language, ear trumpet, face mask, and stethoscope

My first attempt at an overarching narrative and selection of objects for the Exhibition was met with much criticism as well as constructive feedback. It meant back to the drawing board. But I’m happy we created a space where my colleagues and I felt confident to express our concerns and in which we did not prioritise one type of expertise over another. All members of the Expert Group have agency and will see themselves represented in the final product.

The way of collaborating also develops throughout the process. For specific themes, for example, the Expert Group splits into specialised Focus Groups; particularly when discussing sensitive topics and personal experiences.

Crucial has been the support by my friend and colleague Wies Groeneveld, who writes a report of the conversations after every meeting. This not only helps to remember the conversations, but allows for reflection as well.

Now reaching the Production phase, the Expert Group will expand even more. We will employ a photographer, illustrator, and graphic designer to make the Exhibition. They are all great at what they do, and they happen to be DHH as well.

In sum, you could say that my model for collaboration can be summarised in the word: Polyphony. The collaboration is not always easy. Juggling so many voices as well the technologies to get all interpreters booked and installed in the Zoom call, sometimes creates stress and self-doubt. But the solidarity and the inclusive spirit of collaborating with many different experts is really worthwhile and creates self-esteem among the members. Hopefully it will make for an impactful exhibition, both for medical students and DHH communities.