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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.”

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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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

25 replies on “Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles”

  1. “Because Bathsheba’s maidservant is black, the subtly erotic painting takes on an exotic tinge” What is “jarringly racist” about this?

    When I was in central Africa the locals saw me as exotic. they called me “mzungu” which is Bantu for “aimless or lost wanderer”. Its origin is in how all white people looked alike to them and when a white person was seen, he or she was thought to be the very same white person. Thus, someone who shows up in places inexplicably. I was exotic to them.

    The painting’s description is perfectly accurate, since Bathsheeba’s maidservant would certainly not have been black (or African), as that would mean Africans were living in Israel around 1,000 BC. They weren’t. The painting still looks strange. Perhaps a black woman portrayed as a maidservant is ipso facto racist, maybe like painting an upper east side child with her black nannie would obviously be racist? That’s just true no matter what?

    It’s important for cultural institutions to avoid any form of derogation to any group of people, but I do wonder if the curators even understand this painting enough to explain it in the first place.

      1. Well, that was just a description (not a title), and the author introduced it as jarringly racist. I don’t know who wrote it or when, but what I don’t see is anything jarringly racist. Of course it seems like I am trolling here, but it does seem like it’s our own prejudices about language that’s the root problem.

          1. Yes. There’s not really any context for the statement.

            Is the black woman exotic because there was a black woman in the story who was considered exotic? Did the artist consider black women exotic and use them to connote exoticism? Were black women common in paintings of the period as a device to convey exoticism? Did the author of the original blurb consider black women exotic and therefore project his own value judgement? Did the author expect that painting’s audience would consider black women exotic and therefore seek to reinforce that notion?

            Without a more detailed explanation, it’s probably not a great idea to drop an open ended judgement ( namely, black = exotic) which indicates to me that the museum is correct in revising these descriptors to something more neutral, especially when dealing with sensitive or ambiguous topics.

        1. It’s racist because the black female body throughout modern history is automatically eroticized and not much else. Re: black Venus etc…

          1. The “white” female bodies are depicted here in the exact same way, even more sexualized. So, no, differentiation of race for purposes of denigration absolutely does not apply; it’s demonstrably the opposite.

  2. So if I were an historian or curator and I wanted to see depictions of people from Africa and African diaspora would I be able to key word search that under the new system?

  3. From what Carey Dunne has written, it would seem that the museum is trying its best to set things right, both historically and culturally. However, I feel they have made a mistake in retitling “Young Negro Girl” in the way they have (“Girl holding a fan”). I can see she is ‘negro’ and I can see she’s ‘holding a fan’, but I have no way to know where she is from. Therefore I would cast my vote for “Girl from the Indies”. The Indies tells me she’s not from Savannah or Johannesburg. The New Critical approach aside, it gives me a perspective I would not otherwise have. Important, I think.

    1. I think that that is a valid point, and I agree it makes the painting more interesting. However, I think that racial and geographic terms in artistic endeavors at least were handled with more of an eye toward poetry than accuracy in the 17-early 20th century. “Asian,” for example, could be used to mean Turkish, Malay, or Chinese. “Creole” could and did mean just about anyone in a colony who wasn’t quite white — the same with “dusky,” or “gypsy” or “exotic.” Before being willing to put “Indies” on a label of this painting, I’d like to know more about the history of the painting.

      1. Me too. A bit of sloppy thinking on my part. I was, without substantiation, assuming the West Indies. Perhaps a new title could clarify which of the Indies, perhaps even name which island.
        Thank you for your close reading.

  4. I say No to this.

    That is, while racist language should be edited out, in theory; I think/feel it is important to keep the racist language to not only (a) remind us how racist people used to be in the past (and, with that, the racism that is inherent in the works), but also (b) to help us understand how that modernist racism (and other forms of racism) still live on today.

    If anything, the museum should be highlighting the racism (and other oppressions) in their write-ups and tours ––– that is, bringing it front and center –– NOT “writing it away”.

    Revisionist history never did anyone any good.

  5. I’m wary of revisionism. Racist, colonialist terms are indeed repugnant, and I fear that forgetting those terms ever existed is folly. I want for future generations to be properly staggered at our former atrocities, and that can’t happen when we get rid of the references regarding those atrocities, faulty reasonings, human rights violations, and so forth. If we don’t know where we came from, how can we know where we’re going?

  6. Asking forgiveness in advance for what I don’t know: what is bigoted about the title “Young Negro Girl”?

  7. This article is proof positive of Stalin’s profess that history is written by the pen of the victor and truth per/se does not exist.

  8. Just a tiny typo: Sint Nicolaas’ name is misspelled once as Sint Nicolas. Thank you for the article!

  9. My two cents: If the artists themselves gave the work a specific title, it should remain so. If the title was given by museum staff, it does not hurt to change it, if and only if, the chronology of title changes is maintained, noted in the label accompanying the artwork and made accessible to the public. Now, the text developed by museum staff to accompany the artwork is easily changeable. Previous text should be maintained as well, but the editing of said text just reflects the times we’re living in, just as the previous text reflects times past.
    On another note: I disagree with mai-rafner on the title change of “Young Negro Girl” to “Girl holding a fan”. If she were a white girl.. which one would you choose: “Young White Girl” or “Girl holding a fan”? Color does not matter, she is still a girl. The only instances in which color would actually matter is when talking about universal design. Then and only then, would it seem appropriate to differentiate between colors. [Edit: I’m talking about a persons skin color, not color in the sense that the artist would chose X or Y colors for aesthetic purposes.]
    Also, who determined the girl was from the Indies? In the article it states that she was described as so by museum staff. Is this account historically validated through investigation? If so, then yes, by all means, she’s a “Girl from the Indies” but if there is no historical data to prove this, i don’t think it would be a valid statement.

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