The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is in the process of removing “racially charged” words from digitized titles of approximately 220,000 titles in its collection. Involving all 12 curators in the museum’s history department, the Adjustment of Colonial Terminology program actually started six years ago but took a back seat until a massive remodeling was completed in 2013.
Words like “Indian,” “negro,” “dwarf,” and “Mohammedan’’ are being replaced in the museum’s online catalog; for example, a 1900 painting originally titled “Young Negro-Girl” has been renamed “Young Girl Holding a Fan.”
Since some works of art are “titled” by default with just a basic description of the subject matter, those titles are relatively easy to change. The more difficult cases are when a creator has explicitly given a title to their work that contains an offensive or insensitive word, or determining the removal of terms that are less straightforwardly considered rude.
The Rijksmuseum is working with representatives of indigenous groups and civil society organizations to come up with the most appropriate terms to use.
“The point is not to use names given by whites to others. We Dutch are called kaas kops, or cheeseheads, sometimes, and we wouldn’t like it if we went to a museum in another country and saw descriptions of images of us as ‘kaas kop woman with kaas kop child,’ and that’s exactly the same as what’s happening here.”
-Martine Gosselink, Head of the Department of History, Rijksmuseum
There has been a mixed response to the endeavor, as some claim that historical context is being eradicated by changing the titles. However, the previous titles will not be deleted as this ongoing work progresses but archived so that they are still accessible to viewers to see if they wish.
Raphael Roig, senior program officer at the International Council of Museums notes that this is the decision of a single museum, on a case-by-case basis, though his institution is generally supportive of the initiative.
So what do you think? Is this a noble effort or a lost cause? Should we just keep these titles with an asterisk? Will the Rijksmuseum set a new precedent for museums? Do you think this sort of effort should extend to other forms of art, such as literature or film? How do we establish cultural sensitivity while retaining historical context? Am I the wrong person to be asking these questions? Can you think of a better way to meld historical context and sensitivity?
The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab reader. It appears on random days at 3pm ET… Because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!