British Sign Language (BSL) is a recognised language, used predominantly by people who are D/deaf* or have hearing impairments. People who use BSL often cannot access guided tours in the way that other people can — be it a tour led by a live guide, or a pre-recorded audio tour — as they cannot hear them. Thankfully, some institutions are now recognising this, and are offering BSL tours of their collections.
Here are some museums, galleries and other attractions in London which cater to BSL users. Planning to visit somewhere not listed? Check with them in advance, as they too may offer BSL interpretation. As venues become more aware of the need to provide access to visitors with different needs, adaptations such as this are, rightly, becoming more common. We also recommend joining the Deaf tours and BSL talks UK Facebook group — it's not London specific, but London venues crop up regularly, and it's co-moderated by John Wilson, a prolific London BSL guide who leads some of the tours listed below.
BSL tours at the Natural History Museum
Every couple of months, the Natural History Museum offers BSL behind the scenes tours of its Spirit Collection, led by guide John Wilson. The Spirit Collection is usually off-limits to the public, and is a chance to see specimens collected by Charles Darwin, and an 8.6 metre long giant squid, among other objects.
BSL tours of the Spirit Collection at Natural History Museum. £25, see website for upcoming events.
Guided tour with BSL at Tower Bridge
On the last Saturday of each month, Tower Bridge offers guided tours with BSL. The tours are led by one of the expert guides who lead all tours at Tower Bridge, and an interpreter is provided to ensure D/deaf and hard of hearing visitors can understand everything that's said. The interpreter also offers a way for BSL users to communicate with the guide, ask any questions they may have and have them answered.
This tour follows the usual Tower Bridge tour route, visiting the Bridge's iconic towers, the high-level walkways with glass floors, and the Victorian engine rooms down below. For an extra charge, a private tour with BSL guide can be booked for groups of up to six people.
Guided tour with BSL at Tower Bridge. Included in admission prices, takes place last Saturday of each month.
BSL tours of Kew Gardens
Once a month, usually on a Sunday, Kew Gardens runs British Sign Language walking tours of the gardens, led by specially-trained guides and offering an insight into the history of the gardens, as well as how it's run today, and the scientific work being carried out here. Tours last around an hour, and you can continue exploring the gardens on your own afterwards.
British Sign Language tours at Kew Gardens. Free (includes free admission), check website for upcoming dates and to book.
BSL Days at ZSL London Zoo
Once a month, ZSL London Zoo hosts British Sign Language Days, with two-hour BSL tours offered twice on these days. The tours are delivered in BSL by guide John Wilson (who runs the Facebook group mentioned above), and include information about the animals at the zoo, and ZSL's conservation work around the world. Each D/deaf or hard of hearing visitor can bring a carer or companion for free.
British Sign Language Days at ZSL London Zoo. Included in zoo admission price, check website for upcoming events and to book.
BSL tours of The Postal Museum
Clerkenwell's Postal Museum offers BSL tours combining a look at the museum, and a ride on the Mail Rail underground railway. Deaf guide John Wilson once again leads the tours, and your ticket includes entry to the museum's current exhibitions any time on the day of the tour.
BSL Tours of The Postal Museum. £3.50 (includes museum admission), check website or sign up to mailing list for upcoming events.
BSL tours at the RAF Museum
Guide John Wilson is a busy man, as he also offers BSL tours at Hendon's RAF Museum. The events take place semi-regularly, and offer an insight into the museum's Battle of Britain exhibition, home to aircraft from Battle of Britain alongside other bombers, seaplanes, trainers and helicopters, including a Spitfire and an Avro Lancaster.
BSL tours at the RAF Museum. Free, check website for upcoming events.
BSL tours of the Supreme Court
Not many people know that you can take a guided tour of the Supreme Court, and even fewer know about the BSL tours of the building. They follow the usual tour route, visiting three of the courtrooms, and the Justices' Library, with some impressive art works and stained glass thrown in along the way. There's an opportunity to ask questions via the BSL interpreter at the end of the tour.
BSL tours of the Supreme Court. £10, check website for upcoming events.
BSL tours at Historic Royal Palaces
The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace are all operated by Historic Royal Palaces, and all offer BSL tours.
At the Tower of London, tours take places twice daily on certain dates, and are led by a BSL interpreter and qualified guide, and the tour can be tailored to what you want to see, whether it's the usual route of Tower tours, or any specific attractions within the Tower.
Hampton Court Palace usually has BSL interpreters and guides available (though the service is currently suspended). Just make yourself known at the Information Centre on your arrival. Guides can offer full BSL guided tours of the palace, while interpreters are available to interpret presentations and performances taking place in the Palace, and to help you communicate with other members of staff.
Kensington Palace offers two separate BSL tours — one of the opulent King's State Apartments, used by King George II, and the other of the permanent Victoria: A Royal Childhood exhibition — offering information about your surroundings (think Grinling Gibbons carvings and impressive tapestries) as you go. These tours are currently suspended, but when they are running, need to be booked with at least two weeks' notice.
BSL tours at Tower of London. Included in admission price, check website for upcoming dates. Booking advised.
BSL tours at Hampton Court Palace. Included in admission price, check website for upcoming dates — though currently suspended.
BSL tours at Kensington Palace. Included in admission prices, check website for upcoming dates. Booking required.
Other BSL events to know about:
- Though it doesn't specifically offer regular BSL tours of its collections, The V&A Museum offers occasional BSL interpreted talks, events and exhibitions tours — watch this space.
- Similarly, the Design Museum doesn't offer regular BSL tours of its permanent collection, but does schedule them for each temporary exhibition.
- Whitechapel Gallery also offers free BSL guided tours of most of its exhibitions — browse upcoming events.
- The Warner Bros Studio Tour will provide BSL interpreters to muggles and wizards alike at no extra cost, though you do need to book the service at least 14 days in advance.
- Barbican offers occasional BSL interpreted events, including dance, music and theatre performances. Upcoming BSL events can be found on the website.
*By modern convention Deaf with a capital D is used to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk. Lower case is for people who lost hearing later in life. According to deaf health charity Signhealth, "It is an important distinction, because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language. For most Deaf people English is a second language, and understanding complicated messages in English can be a problem."