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Rijksmuseum is Removing Racial Terms from Titles of Artworks in a Project Called 'Adjustment of Colonial Terminology'

December 18, 2015
Web journalist, coffee junkie and art fanatic. Cares about the environment, writes for Widewalls. Alias of Milica Jovic

Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum recently began a process of removing offensive language from digitized titles and descriptions of artworks from their extensive collection. Racial and politically incorrect words, once commonly used to describe certain groups of people such as Negro, Indian or dwarf will soon be changed with neutral, politically correct terminology. As expected, this decision caused a vivid discussion in the art world about whether it’s acceptable to interfere with the artists’ works in such manner.

Rijskmuseum via tatilbudur
Rijskmuseum via tatilbudur

Adjustment of Colonial Terminology Project by Rijksmuseum

The replacement of controversial titles and descriptions is a part of the Rijksmuseum project named Adjustment of Colonial Terminology. The project has been ongoing for a while but it wasn’t till now that the changes have been placed in the museum’s online catalogue. The goal of the project is to replace the insulting descriptions, that date mostly from the colonial era and make the artworks more sensitive to the demands of today’s multicultural society. New titles are added to the old ones and outdated online descriptions replaced with more acceptable alternatives. The first revision was made before the museum reopened in 2013 but there’s still a lot of work to be done, which is understandable considering that this particular museum has 1.1 million works in its collection. And there’s quite a few of the controversial ones. For instance, the curators have found total of 132 works with the word Negro in their title. And that’s just one of 23 different terms, (considered offensive by the specialists on the issue), that are up for revision. Words such as dwarf, Eskimo and 20 other racist terms are currently being removed from 220 000 art descriptions. Most of the artworks in question, are produced in the 17th and 18th century a “golden age” of Holland’s colonial era.

Left Margaretha van Raephorst's Negro Servant is now Called Young Black Servant Right Simon Maris' Young Negro Girl whose Name was Recently Changed to Youn Girl Holding a Fan
Left : Margaretha van Raephorst’s Negro Servant That’s now Called Young Black Servant / Right : Simon Maris’ Young Negro Girl whose Name was Recently Changed to Young Girl Holding a Fan, photos via Rijksmuseum

“Rewriting History” and The Question of Censorship

This is the first time that a museum in Europe has made an effort to change the titles and descriptions of the artworks in their collection and it was done with the approval of the ethics committee of the International Council of Museums, based in France. But not everyone were so approving. Adjustment of Colonial Terminology came under criticism from numerous art professionals, that claim that the project is morally questionable and dishonest, because it represents an attempt to “rewrite history” by stripping the artworks from their colonial background. Another concern often raised by this project is censorship.

But many experts such as Jonathan Jones of The Guardian disagree and think that “changing the artwork’s name isn’t the same as changing the artwork itself“. In a blog for The Guardian he reminds us that titles of the visual works don’t carry the same weight as titles in literature that are inseparable from the actual content. The artworks’ names are often descriptive and do not change the essence of the images in any way. Additionally, many of the titles are not chosen by the artists themselves but rather by writers, art historians or the public. Even Michelangelo’s celebrated sculpture David for example, was originally called The Giant. Besides, the museum officials made sure that the artworks keep their originality, since the previous names are still written next to the new ones, thus providing a comprehensive and accurate historical context.

Left its Name Several Times Trough the Years
Left : Michelangelo’s David was Originally Named the Giant, photo via accademia Right : John Simpson’s Head of a Man Changed its Name Several Times Trough the Years, photo via Daily Mail

“Pandering to Political Correctness” or a Praiseworthy Endeavor?

Is Adjustment of Colonial Terminology project “pandering to political correctness” (as Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of Tate once said), or just making the artworks more sensitive to emotions of various groups in the society? While some claim that the racial elements are an inseparable part of the artwork and that their removal will change the meaning of the actual work, others claim that this project will bring them closer to modern crowd as new names, stripped of the racial references might allow their humanity to be seen thus making it more accessible, to more people. However, as art history reminds us, certain artworks changed their names numerous times in the past and it hasn’t changed their perception at all. For example, a controversial painting by John Simpson that was originally called Head of a Black, at some point changed its name to Head of a Negro. Then in 2005 the artwork was renamed again to Male Head Study (the Captive Slave) only to be renamed to Head of a Male several years latter. The Adjustment of Colonial Terminology project might make some artworks more acceptable for certain people but it’s highly unlikely that it will change the viewers perception in any way. Visual art is after all a field where images speak louder than words.