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Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles

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Cornelius van Harlaam, “Bathsheba at her toilet” (1594) (all images courtesy the Rijksmuseum)

If you’re browsing the digital collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, you might come across a 1594 painting by Cornelisz van Haarlem, “Bathsheba at her Toilet,” picturing “the beautiful Bathsheba” bathing outside the castle of King David. And you might wonder what year it is when you see this jarringly racist phrase in the painting’s description: “Because Bathsheba’s maidservant is black, the subtly erotic painting takes on an exotic tinge.

It’s just one example of the offensive and dated language that peppers the museum’s descriptions of its artworks. Soon, though, racially charged language — including words like “negro” and “Mohamadden,” a Victorian word for Muslims since it was assumed they followed Mohammad like Christians followed Jesus — will be removed from some 220,000 titles and descriptions in the Rijksmuseum’s online catalogue of images, to be replaced by more neutral terms. The project, called “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology,” is spearheaded by 12 curators in the Rijksmuseum’s history department. It’s been in planning stages for several years, but has only gotten off the ground in the past month.

“The Rijksmuseum thinks it’s very important to give descriptions of our collections in a neutral way, using correct, up-to-date language and from a neutral perspective,” curator Eveline Sint Nicolaas tells Hyperallergic. “We no longer want to make use of terms that reflect a Eurocentric way of looking at people or historic moments, or that are considered discriminatory because the used terms refer to race in a negative way, or contain terms that go back to colonial times. If it’s unnecessary, they will no longer refer to skin color.”

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Simon Maris, “Girl Holding a Fan,” from the collection of the Rijksmuseum. Before the museum’s “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” project, the painting was called “Young Negro Girl.”

The project has been met with plenty of opposition from people who think it’s an example of historical revisionism, censorship, or political correctness gone too far. “Some people are afraid we are ‘whitewashing’ history or throwing away historical information that belongs to the object,” Sint Nicolaas says. Those include Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, who commented on the Rijkmuseum’s decision by saying Tate’s galleries would not be following suit by “censoring” artworks. But “nothing is erased,” Sint Nicolaas says. The Rijksmuseum argues that critics of this project don’t understand its nuances, or the art historical and colonial context that led to such descriptions being written in the first place. The updates simply provide visitors with a neutral lens through which to view historical artworks, instead of the biased lens created by Rijksmuseum administrations of the past. 

In most cases, the titles of the artworks in question weren’t even written by artists themselves. When the museum acquired objects without titles, its employees labeled them themselves, often using the racist language of their time. Many of these titles and descriptions changed several times over the years. The painting “Girl holding a fan,” by Simon Maris, for example, came into the museum’s collection without a title. First, it was described as Girl from the Indies, later as Eastern Type, then Young Negro Girl. Now, thanks to the “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” project, it’s been updated to the more neutral Girl holding a fan. 

It’s just one of 132 descriptions including the word “Negro” that have been changed so far. The museum is also changing words like “hottentot,” an offensive Dutch term for the Khoi people of Africa, and “Mohamadden,” a Victorian term for Muslims. 

Titles that were given by the artist, or written on the object, are not eliminated in the updates, but instead referred to as original titleor title on object,” with a new preferred title next to it. “Adjusted titles and descriptions are always kept in the museum’s registration system, available to everyone,” Sint Nicolaas says. This indicates to viewers that the museum’s current staff isn’t condoning the racist perspective implied by the original title’s language, but rather putting that title in historical context. 

“We feel that colonial history and the way we deal with it is a more important topic than ever,” Sint Nicolaas says. “It’s a very complicated project and at the same time a very important project.” This is the first time a European museum has decided to sweepingly change the titles and descriptions of its works, and it remains to be seen whether it will start an “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” trend or whether those loudly complaining about political correctness will stand their ground.

h/t New York Times

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