Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has decided to remove racially charged terms from their artworks’ titles and descriptions. Specifically, it is focusing on offensive words previously given by Europeans to other cultures, including ‘negro’, ‘dwarf’ and ‘Indian’.
The curator leading the initiative, Martine Gosselink, told the London Times, “The point of the project is not to use names given by whites to others. We Dutch are called kaaskops, or cheeseheads, sometimes, and 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’, and that’s exactly the same as what’s happening here.”
The labels on artworks on display were previously changed before the museum re-opened in 2013, but now all 12 museum curators are involved in the ‘Adjustment of Colonial Terminology’ project, focusing on the titles and descriptions in 220,000 digitised artworks.
The initiative was welcomed by Raphael Roig of the International Council of Museums who said “We are very supportive toward the Rijksmuseum’s decision.” Despite this, the project has already proved controversial in artistic circles,
Tatler art critic Josh Spero labelled the move as “rewriting history” and said removing offensive terms was akin to “pretending it never happened”. There’s also been some concerns about the implications of artistic censorship and ownership, since some of the amended titles were decided by the original artist. The museum defended itself against that claim, insisting any original title would still be included in the artwork description.
The controversy is unlikely to affect visitor numbers with Rijksmuseum reporting more than 2.35 million visitors in 2015; the third year in a row they passed the 2 million mark.