Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum has started renaming racially charged works in its collection – an admirable PC move or a ‘dishonest re-writing of history’?
A couple of weeks ago, an iconic European museum was thrust into the limelight when it emerged it had begun scrubbing controversial terms in the titles and descriptions of some 300 artworks in its collection. Under the on-going initiative at Amsterdam’s popular Rijksmuseum, words such as ‘negro’, ‘nigger’ and ‘Mohammeden’ have been replaced with less racially charged terminology in order to avoid causing offense to an increasingly international audience – one that last year was made up of 2.5 million visitors.
The reasoning behind the changes seems simple enough. It is essentially the same reason we saw a backlash against misplaced cultural appropriation this year, from Valentino and KTZ’s “exotic” catwalks to Katy Perry’s and Kylie Jenner’s cornrows. The reason why, when you turn on the TV this Christmas, the BBC’s adaption of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Niggers” won’t be aired under that derogatory, original title. And the reason why you’ll no longer find “Tintin in the Congo” in the kids comic section of your high-street book shop. It ultimately comes down to cultural respect.
The curator leading the Rijksmuseum initiative, Martine Gosselink, told the Times that “The point of the project is not to use names given by whites to others.” In simple terms she said, “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.” Hence, for example, Young Negro Girl (c.1900) by Simon Maris has been re-named A Young Girl Holding A Fan.
“It is part of our policy of taking a critical approach to the traditional Eurocentric viewpoint” – Eveline Sint Nicolaas
The project, endorsed by the International Committee of Museums whose code of ethics is followed by many British museums, has inevitably polarised public response. Beside those who have applauded the changes, others have been parading Twitter with the reactionary hashtag #culturalMarxists. One art historian declared that tampering with historical texts is not only “dishonest” but also “re-writes history” and equates to “artistic censorship”. Even the director of the Tate weighed in to say that the gallery would not be following the Dutch museum’s lead unless it could obtain permission by the artists concerned – the chances of which would be pretty slim given that most of the disputed works are over 100 years old.
I could understand the frustrations of such critics – that re-labelling “(wrenches) art from its context”, that it is “anachronistic” to superimpose modern-day titles onto historical works, and risks “pandering to political correctness” – if only they had got their facts straight. The bottom line is, that the paintings, drawings and prints subject to changes were largely titled by curators posterior to them being made. As one prominent curator involved in the project, Eveline Sint Nicolaas told us, “most of the titles and descriptions being amended were not authored by the artists themselves, and many have been changed over the years by my ancestors, earlier curators, to suit sensibilities of the day”.
“Clearly the ‘N-word’ doesn’t have the appeal that it may have once had to white middle-class readers of Agatha Christie”
This nods to the basic fact that language and its meaning changes over time. Just as we no longer call people with disabilities “crippled” or “handicapped”, in a bid to modernise, the Rijkmuseum is departing from old-hat outlooks on “other” peoples. “It is part of our policy”, Sint Nicolaas said, “of taking a critical approach to the traditional Eurocentric viewpoint.” Clearly the ‘N-word’ doesn’t have the appeal that it may have once had to white middle-class readers of Agatha Christie. So if you’re going to argue along the lines of anachronism, then surely it’s anachronistic to effectively endorse out-dated mores in a modern-day, international context.
Revelations of the Rijksmuseum’s Adjustment project comes at a time when Dutch people still paint themselves black to look like Santa’s ‘helpers’ in ‘festivities’ that yearly alienate an immigrant population – a large percentage of which are descendants of the Netherland’s colonial past. The annual outcry surrounding the nationwide ‘Black Pete’ celebrations (which this year turned to smearing soot over faces, as if that was compensation), echoes the debate concerning the cultural sensitivity of racially charged texts on display in a national museum and its online collection – both of which attract a global audience.
Ultimately, “the aim of the museum is not to provide a biased view of the works or the people represented in them”, Sint Nicolaas said. “It should provide a neutral space for viewers to make their own judgements.” The few amended titles that were originally penned by artists, she stressed, would be included in the descriptions of the artworks displayed and in the online archive, while former titles by curators are accessible for public research. It’s true that such titles are valuable nuggets of history, which indicate how artworks have been received over time according to changing attitudes. But to say that the Rijksmuseum is “re-writing” history completely ignores the sensitive way in which its agenda has been put into place.
There’s doubtless still a question mark hanging over the tweaking of titles formerly made by artists, and if the Amendment project concerned only these works, then the media uproar would have more of a leg to stand on. Nevertheless, the attention the project has received has reignited an interesting conversation regarding cultural ethics and so-called “artistic censorship”. As one art historian at London’s Courtauld Institute, Joanna Woodall, told me, “the Rijksmuseum's iniative will hopefully lead to a more nuanced and historically sensitive understanding of the term ‘title’.” Because, after all, language, like history, is never set in stone.