The National Gallery of Denmark (or Statens Museum for Kunst, SMK) is removing dated, potentially offensive colonial terminology from the titles of artworks in its collection. The decision was inspired by a similar effort made by Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum last year.
The titles of 14 works by Danish painters dating from 1609 to 1959 were affected: 13 included the word “negro” (in Danish, “neger”), and one title included the word “Hottentot,” an offensive Dutch term for the Khoi people of Africa. The titles were updated with the word “African.”
The change sparked criticism from the nationalist Danish People’s Party, a right-wing, anti-immigration government ally, which accused the museum of revising history. “Suddenly they want to remove these terms from their own history so they want to whitewash their own history, which is a totalitarian mindset,” Alex Ahrendtsen, the Danish People’s Party spokesman for cultural affairs, told AFP. The history he’s referring to includes Denmark’s participation in the slave trade, as well as small colonies Denmark held in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Similar criticisms were leveled at the Rijksmuseum last year after it removed bigoted terms from its collection.
The National Gallery of Denmark defended its decision, distinguishing between titles written by artists themselves, which will not be changed, and titles given to works by past museum administrations, which are updated to better reflect contemporary vernacular. While old titles are removed from wall texts, they are recorded as former titles in the museum’s digital database, so no history is permanently “erased.”
“Changing titles and descriptions of art is standard museum practice — for example, if the museum learns more about the subject of a painting or finds titles with imprecise or obsolete phrasing,” Karen Ormstrup Søndergaard, SMK Head of Press, explained in an email to Hyperallergic.
The artist’s titles were given by the artists themselves, and we are very reluctant to change them. If we do, the change typically takes the form of a shortened version of an older, very long descriptive title. But we never change artist’s titles in ways that take away any of the work’s meaning or context expressed by the work and its title.
Because of this policy, the museum would not remove the word “neger/negro” from artist’s titles.
Works affected by the change include the 17th-century painting “Hoved af en Afrikaner / Head of an African,” by Christian IV’s Dutch painter Karel van Mander III. When the painting was acquired in 1938, museum administrators gave it the title “Hoved af en neger / Head of a Negro.” “We do not believe that such a title is suitable in our present day,” Søndergaard said. There’s debate about whether the updated title, “Head of an African,” is itself suitable. “Given that we cannot pinpoint the sitter’s nationality more accurately than Africa, it might be better to simply call the work ‘Portrait of a Man,'” Søndergaard said. “After all, we would not use ‘European’ to designate a portrait of an unknown person from the European continent.”
Other works with updated titles include Johann Georg de Hamilton’s 17th-century painting “African with Hunting Trophies,” as well as paintings by monarch Christian IV of Denmark’s court painter and Danish neoclassical history painter Nicolai Abildgaard.
Denmark’s National Museum, another museum in Copenhagen, will not be following suit. Camilla Mordhorst, a spokeswoman for Denmark’s National Museum, told Politiken it would maintain colonial terms in its collection because they describe “an inequality between people that is part of the story.” Resistance to the change might be compounded by the fact that “neger” is still a commonly used term in Denmark. A recent survey found that every fourth Dane prefers to use the word “neger” when describing a person of African heritage, prompting much heated conversation.