Some 220,000 artworks may be renamed to eliminate racially insensitive language as part of an ambitious project being undertaken by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Last week ArtsBeat reported that the project, entitled “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology”, began in earnest this month after six years of preliminary work. Led by the head of the Rijksmuseum’s history department, Martine Gosselink, twelve curators are searching the Museum’s online database and amending titles and descriptions of works, which might be considered offensive.
Words including ‘negro’, ‘Indian’, ‘dwarf’ and ‘Mohammedan’, an archaic term for a Muslim, will be replaced with more sensitive terminology. For example, “Young Negro Girl” by Simon Maris has been changed to “Young Girl Holding a Fan”. So far, about 200 descriptions have been updated.
The Rijksmuseum has already amended the labels for the 8000 works on display in its galleries. This was completed in time for the re-opening of the Museum in 2013 after it underwent a 10 year renovation.
Confronted by accusations of historical revisionism, Gosselink assured critics that the Museum will archive the original titles given to works by their creators to preserve context:
“It’s not a matter of whitewashing our Dutch history, we do think that old colonial terms are also part of it,” she said.
However, Gosselink is conscious of the impact of racially insensitive language on visitors to the Museum:
“We Dutch are called kaas kops, or cheeseheads, sometimes… 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.’”
Raphael Roig from the ethics committee of the International Council of Museums(ICOM), noted that it is the first time a European museum has undertaken such an initiative. While ICOM supports the direction the Museum is taking, Roig said it would be for other museums to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to embark on a similar project.
ICOM’s support has been echoed by Jonathan Jones of the The Guardian. He downplayed the significance of artists’ titles for their works and said there is a tenuous link between the title and the artist’s intention:
“Titles are almost always given later by the public, writers, art historians or museums.”
Others are far less enthusiastic about the project and what they perceive as political correctness gone mad. Art historian Julian Spalding commented that “on an artistic level, it’s censorship, as bad as playing The Merchant of Venice without Shylock.” Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, confirmed the gallery would not follow the Rijksmuseum’s example.
Ignoring for a moment the merits of the changes, given the confusion that may be caused by changing a work’s title establishing provenance could become an even messier business