AIArt Inquisition

Art Inquisition: What’s In a Name?

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!

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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  1. It’s hard for outsiders (like me) to know whether this effort will or won’t have any negative side effects. On the whole, it certainly seems worth doing, and the fact that they’re keeping records of the original titles shows that they’re not trying to actually whitewash the past. (And in general if I trust anyone in the world to make such a change without erasing historical context, it would be museum curators.)

    Then again, sometimes there is a fine line between cleaning up the toxic mistakes of the past, and hiding their actual existence. Museums are certainly one of places where people should not be excused from acknowledging uncomfortable truths about our past. But I do agree that that shouldn’t be done at the cost of creating an actively hostile environment. Ultimately, museum curators have to figure out how to walk that line.

    (Personal story — many years ago I worked for an internal retail company. One day, certain events sparked a call from upper-level management for us to rush out a change to add the n-word to the list of filtered words. This list was applied not to user-supplied content, but to the actual objects that were sold on the website. My initial instinct was to get the change out immediately, but on second thought I did a little research on and other websites. It became clear that the vast majority of items that would actually be caught by this filter would be titles of books — almost entirely books by POC writing about the history of racism in America. I went back to management with this extra data and they ultimately decided not to make the change.)

  2. That’s a really great story, breadbox! Very indicative that there really can’t be a sweeping, in-all-cases mandate across the board for this kind of stuff. Ya gotta look at the details sometimes!

    It seems like the museum’s curators are taking each artwork under individual consideration, which means more work but greater nuance and actual sensitivity.

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