Skip to content

By Science Museum Group on

New BSL signs inspired by the Science Museum Group Collection

To mark National BSL Day on 28 April, we highlight new BSL signs inspired by our collection and share the process behind their creation.

In late 2023, the National Collections Centre at the Science and Innovation Park in Wiltshire welcomed a team of British Sign Language (BSL) experts to delve into the Science Museum Group’s incredible collection of scientific objects. These remarkable objects, and discussions with researchers and academics, helped inspire the creation of several new science specific BSL signs. 

The absence of a broad enough sign language vocabulary has previously left deaf people struggling to enter scientific conversations, either as students or educators. Finger-spelling – the method by which signers communicate words for which there is no specific sign – is slow and can be imprecise, particularly when dealing with long scientific terms. 

‘The real problem is the lack of vocabulary for sciences,’ said Dr Audrey Cameron OBE, University of Edinburgh. ‘[Historically] we had to rely on finger spelling, so we realised it was important to set up a glossary.’  

Dr Cameron leads a long-running glossary project at the Scottish Sensory Centre which aims to address this deficiency by creating and codifying numerous new signs, focused on STEM subjects.  

The workshop at the National Collections Centre used objects from the Science Museum Group Collection to stimulate discussion between scientists from Royal Holloway, University of London and BSL experts to identify where new signs were needed.

The Royal Holloway scientists described the origins and applications of several objects from the collection before being questioned by the sign language experts on the terminology they used. The sign language experts highlighting words that may need translating into BSL.

Together, the participants then developed potential signs, ensuring both clarity and specificity for the new signs, while remaining faithful to the science behind the terms. This collaboration is just one illustration of how museum collections can inspire unique research projects.  

At the National Collections Centre, the BSL experts viewed objects including the first model to trace the pathways of earth particles during an earthquake; a 19th century tide predictor, which enabled scientists to read tide times for any given day, long before the physics of tides was understood; Gordon Dobson’s original ozone spectrograph designed in 1924 – versions of spectrograph were crucial in understanding ozone depletion and levels of air pollution; and an early petrographic microscope which uses polarised lenses to determine the properties of rocks and minerals. 

‘Do we need a sign for “polarisation”?’ suggested Dr Tracey Berry, a senior lecturer in Physics at Royal Holloway, while demonstrating the process to the workshop participants. 

The discussion about how to depict polarisation resulted in an idea for a sign that ably demonstrated the interconnectivity of two lenses and how they filter light. It contained within it the very process it was describing; the way some light is restricted from penetrating the lenses and the effect it has on a sliver of rock. 

New BSL sign for ‘polarisation’

Dr Cameron added: ‘It’s been really useful to have a real object. If not, you’re talking about an abstract concept, so I think to see something really working in real life has really helped our understanding. We create signs by firstly understanding things in a visual context, and then trying to represent it in sign.’ 

 ‘When you see things and you see these visual concepts, you’re able to put it into BSL,’ said Sujit Sahasrabudhe, a BSL teaching fellow at Heriot Watt University, and a research assistant on an international sign linguistics project. ‘Usually, you have meaning within the signs. It’s part of the grammatical rules of sign language.’  

Gordon Dobson’s original ozone spectrograph designed in 1924.

Eventually Dr Cameron videoed Sahasrabudhe demonstrating the new sign, the start of a process that has now lead to the sign being formally introduced to the glossary. ‘We were really happy with the sign we’ve created,’ Sahasrabudhe said. ‘It’s quite beautiful.’ 

 By the end of the workshop, several participants commented on the two-way learning process they had undertaken. The BSL experts learnt much about geophysics, and questioning of the scientists, followed by the process of crafting signs, had encouraged the Royal Holloway contingent to think in new ways about their subject. 

Ten signs discussed in the workshop have now been added to the glossary. These include signs for seismograph, seismometer, earthquake, focus (of an earthquake), seismic waves, polarisers and Dobson’s ozone spectrograph (one of the objects the team looked at)

New BSL sign for ‘seismometer’

‘It’s been very exciting to work with new people who look at the world in a slightly different way, and to look at the objects, be with the objects, describe your passion for them, and then have someone nomenclaturise them for their language. It’s very rewarding’ said Professor Martin King from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway. 

He added: ‘Something that struck me today was how graphic a lot of the signs were […] It’s interesting to see that the sign often boils down the nub of the issue. It reduces it to its bare minimum, and in that is a very simple explanation.’ 

With the National Collections Centre getting ready to open to the public later this year for guided tours, the workshop underlined the lasting value of the collection and its enduring relevance. The workshop also exemplifies the Science Museum Group’s value of being Open for All 

‘We’re really interested in the innovative ways we can work together in collaboration and thinking about being open for all,’ said Fiona Slater, whose work at SMG focuses on accessibility. ‘We have a national collection here, and it’s important to us that everyone can access it.’ 

Slater continued: ‘What’s really exciting is how the conversations were very much sparked by exploring an object and the materiality of the use of that object. It had such an impact on the hand shapes used and the gestures. I am so pleased the signs have been adopted and become part of the lexicon that will go on to expand people’s knowledge.’ 

Dr Cameron noted only one drawback to the workshop. ‘One day was simply not enough,’ she said.

Joining Dr Cameron for the workshop were: Sujit Sahasrabudhe, a BSL teaching fellow at Heriot Watt University and colleagues from the Scottish Sensory Centre, Sanchayeeta Iyer, a PhD student at Heriot Watt University, Nicola Jackson, a geography teacher at Heathlands School for the Deaf in St Albans, and Tina Kelberman, a geography teacher and TV translator, Dr Tracey Berry, a senior lecturer in Physics at Royal Holloway, Dr Christina Manning, Royal Holloway, Dr Ian Watkinson, Royal Holloway, and Professor Martin King from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway. The project was initiated and supported by the Science Museum Group’s Dr Scott Anthony, Deputy Head of Research & Public History, and Fiona Slater, Head of Access and Equity, with support from the Collection Access team at the Science and Innovation Park.

Since its original pilot in 2005, the BSL glossary has produced close to 2,000 signs, sorted into 10 categories (astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc.), which is updated regularly. The SSC’s website  displays a video demonstration of the sign alongside a precise signed definition. 

For more information about research at SMG please contact [email protected]. For more information about the BSL project or to support this work, please contact Fiona Slater. Further information about our Open for all value is available on our website, with regular updates shared on this blog.   

A note on Language 

The Science Museum Group strives to use inclusive language and, where possible, to use terminology people use to define themselves. Throughout this blog we have used the term ‘deaf’ based on conversations with our key partner at the BSL Glossary project. We recognise other people prefer the term Deaf or D/deaf.