Why One of the World’s Leading Museums Is Erasing ‘Offensive Art’

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is altering racially insensitive titles and descriptions of works in its collection. Could New York’s Met be next?

12.15.15 6:00 AM ET

At first glance, a major museum altering racially insensitive titles and descriptions of works in its collection seems symptomatic of political correctness run amok.

Surely most museum patrons understand the historical context of racial identifiers accompanying portraits of black women at the turn of the 20th century?

Perhaps. But why run the risk of offending any museum patrons? Why not update the language of these titles and descriptions to reflect today’s cultural mores? 

That’s the rationale behind the new “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” program implemented at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is scrubbing potentially offensive language from digitized titles and descriptions of roughly 220,000 artworks in its collection.

Identifiers that are considered discriminatory or outdated today like “Indian,” “negro,” “dwarf,” and “Mohammedan,’’ a word Westerners once affixed to Muslims, will be replaced by more appropriate terms. 

The museum has been accused of censorship by some art historians, but others say it’s not censorship if the original title is mentioned somewhere in the label. 

Martin Kemp, professor of the history of art at Oxford University and one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci, told The Daily Beast he’s “broadly in favor of avoiding sensitive terms in the titles accorded to works by museums, galleries and curators in contemporary labels.” 

Works were not given titles until the rise of exhibitions in the late 18th century, and they were generally titled by the exhibition curators.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that artists began to title the works themselves.

None of the major Renaissance artists—da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo—named their masterpieces. 

Kemp argued that works titled by artists should be labeled with the original title in quotation marks—“a matter of historical integrity.”

He cited an infamous portrait of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” as a case where the original title is essential to understanding the work itself.

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Baartman was imported from South Africa to Britain in 1810, where she was exhibited to the public as a grotesque, fetishized sideshow because of “the enormous size of her posterior parts,” according to advertisements from the time

“Hottentot” is one of the terms that Martine Gosselink, who spearheaded the project and heads the Rijksmuseum’s history department, is trying to change “as soon as possible,” she told The New York Times

But Kemp said it would be historical revisionism to retitle the portrait without retaining its original context: “You have to make clear that [the title] is part of why she was presented and part of the historical rationale for the work.” 

The International Council of Museums has come out in support of the initiative, though a spokesperson told the Times that they’ve never before encountered “a debate with regards to the titles and descriptions” of artworks.  

It’s unclear whether the Rijksmuseum will set a politically correct precedent for other major museums. The Art Institute of Chicago declined to comment on the project. Four other major museums—the Metropolitan in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—did not return multiple requests for comment. 

A spokesperson for the Whitney in New York said she was awaiting clarification on the issue “internally,” within the museum.

Kirk Savage, an art historian and author of Monument Wars, told The Daily Beast that the historical revisionism argument isn’t relative in many cases of title-and-description altering. “These titles have already changed numerous times in history because an artwork’s metadata changes as it acquires new information overtime.” 

But Savage agreed with Kemp and other critics that it would be counterintuitive to excise any and all traces of racism in a work’s title or description. Museums should educate patrons about racially insensitive language, not pretend it never existed.