John Brewster, Jr. Exhibit – Art and Deaf Culture Education

The Portland Museum of Art planned an exhibit, A Deaf Artist in Early America: The Worlds of John Brewster, Jr., featuring the work of a deaf portrait artist in the 1800s. The Museum sought to incorporate today’s Deaf culture and experience into the exhibit. The Museum’s Education Department contacted an art teacher at the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf to see if students there would like to work on the exhibit. Students were excited at the prospect of a service-learning project with the Museum.

The students used library resources and the Internet to research the life and times of John Brewster, Jr. Through classroom discussion, they contrasted his life as a Deaf individual in the 19th century with their own lives in the 21st century. Then they began brainstorming how to incorporate today’s Deaf culture into the exhibit.

The students created a video in which they signed interpretations of Brewster’s work in front of recreations they had made of his paintings. This video played continually in the exhibit hall, with text captions for non-signers to read. The students also created “sign cards” by many exhibit paintings, each of which showed a detail from the painting beside an American Sign Language “sign” for that object.

The students’ contributions were considered a “highlight, not to be missed” by The Portland Phoenix (a local paper) and gave community members a valuable glimpse of today’s Deaf culture.