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Sep 27, 2022
Manuscripts – The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Collection, 1972-1985
King Jordan Student Academic Center 1255
Sonnenstrahl, Deborah Meranski, 1935-
The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Collection, 1972-1985
Gallaudet University Archives
Repository: Gallaudet University Archives
Call No.: MSS 212
Creator: Sonnenstrahl, Deborah Meranski, 1935-
Title: The Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl Collection, 1972-1985
Quantity: 6 boxes (3.5 linear feet)Abstract: Papers related to the Office of Fine Arts and art history classes at Gallaudet University.
Includes correspondence, transparencies, lecture notes, tests, and textbook excerpts.
Note: This document last updated January 2016.
Acquisition Information: Donated to the Archives by Dr. Deborah M. Sonnenstrahl, 1997.
Processed By: Christopher Shea, January 2016.
Conditions on Use and Access: This collection is open to the public with no restrictions. Photocopies may be made for scholarly research.
Related Material in the Archives
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 13, 1935, Deborah Belle Meranski, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Israel Meranski, was deaf from birth. Her early education was exclusively oral, at the Baer School for disabled students (1940-1947) and the private Park School in Baltimore (1948-1954).
She entered Gallaudet College in 1954. Earlier in her life she had little interest in art due to the communication barriers she faced as a deaf person. But she became interested in art and art history through mandatory classes at Gallaudet, and ended up majoring in art since Gallaudet did not yet offer a major in art history. She graduated in 1958 with a BA and spent several years as a housewife.
In 1962, Elva S. Loe, then chair of the Gallaudet art department, went on sabbatical and asked Sonnenstrahl to fill in for her. This was the start of an almost 35-year teaching career at Gallaudet. Sonnenstrahl joined Gallaudet’s faculty as an assistant in the art department, and became a full instructor in art history in 1965.
At the same time, she began studying for a master’s degree in art history at Catholic University of America, and earned her degree in 1967. While teaching at Gallaudet during the 1960s, she also developed an interest in the theater, and directed and performed in many amateur productions.
Sonnenstrahl was named Gallaudet’s Teacher of the Year in 1978, and had the Tower Clock dedicated to her in the same year. She was also later named to the National Congress of Jewish Deaf Hall of Fame in 1990 and was selected as the District of Columbia Professor of the Year two years later.
She was the first deaf person to receive a certificate in museum studies from New York University in 1985, and earned her Ph.D. from NYU in museum studies with a minor in deaf education in 1987. She worked extensively on museum accessibility issues, and served on advisory boards at the Smithsonian, the Capitol Children’s Museum, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She assisted the National Endowment for the Arts on the Museum Training Model Development Project, which helped deaf interns enter the museum field.
Dr. Sonnenstrahl became the chair of Gallaudet’s art department in 1991 and retired from Gallaudet as a professor emerita in 1996. Her book, Deaf Artists in America: Colonial to Contemporary, a definitive survey of deaf contributions to the art world, was published in 2002 and won a Benjamin Franklin Book Award in 2003. Dr. Sonnenstrahl was inducted into the Gallaudet University Hall of Fame in 2014 as Deborah M. Blumenson, her current married name.
Besides Dr. Sonnenstrahl, this collection includes some material related to two other women who were involved in art at Gallaudet. Judy Mannes Bortner served as curator in Gallaudet’s Office of Fine Arts before Dr. Sonnenstrahl took over as director. In this capacity, Bortner was responsible for expanding Gallaudet’s art collection and arranging for loans and exhibits of art at the university.
Frances Parsons (1923-2013) was a deaf educator and writer who served as a long-term member of Gallaudet’s staff and later the art department. At the time covered by this collection, she and Dr. Sonnenstrahl shared the job of teaching undergraduate art history courses.
Scope and Content
This collection consists of two main series. The first is correspondence from the Office of Fine Arts during its management by Judy Bortner and Dr. Sonnenstrahl. This series is only an incomplete part of the Office of Fine Arts’ correspondence / subject files but does provide some insight into the activities and management of the office during those years.
The second series is material from undergraduate art history courses taught by Dr. Sonnenstrahl and Frances Parsons, and includes material created by both of them. It includes lecture notes and displays as well as a large collection of tests and test keys used over the years. It does not include transparencies or slides of the artwork discussed during class, but it does provide enough material to give a picture of how the class was conducted and the types of artwork that were used in the instruction.
Series 1. Correspondence, 1951-1991
A collection of correspondence from and to Dr. Sonnenstrahl and Judy Bortner, most related to the activities of the Gallaudet Office of Fine Arts. Includes details of art exhibits at Gallaudet, art loans, funding and acquisitions, museum access and education, and similar topics.
Note that this series is alphabetized by subject, and covers mostly the letters A-D. The remainder of the alphabet may be elsewhere in the archives, possibly in collections related to the Office of Fine Arts rather than to Sonnenstrahl or Bortner personally.
Series 2. Art history class materials, undated
At the time Dr. Sonnenstrahl and Ms. Parsons were teaching art history, it was a required undergraduate course. This series includes brief lecture notes and transparencies, as well as copied excerpts from the textbook used. This series is arranged by time period covered.
Also present are copies of tests used during the course, mostly multiple choice with some essay questions used for those making up missed tests. Test keys are included for a few.
It is not clear whether Dr. Sonnenstrahl or Ms. Parsons wrote these materials, or whether it was a collaborative effort.
Gallaudet University, chartered in 1864, is a private university for deaf and hard of hearing students.
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