As It Happens

Amsterdam museum removes offensive names from artwork

The museum's director of history says she came across descriptions of art and historical objects in their collection that were "offensive and insensitive."
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum)

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is restoring some of the works in its vast art collection. But this isn't about peeling paint or cracked frames — it's about offensive language.

The museum's director of history, Martine Gosselink, tells As It Happens host Carol Off that she came up with the idea several years ago while browsing through part of their collection of early art.

"I came across descriptions of art and historical objects that were written in the mid-20th century and some of the words, I found, were so old-fashioned ... and some of them were — in my ears — sounding quite offensive and insensitive."

It was then Gosselink decided to set up a project to change all the "racist terms" from the museum's entire collection.

One concrete example is an early 20th century painting by Dutch artist Simon Maris. Originally it was called Young Negro Girl. Now, it has been re-named Young Girl Holding a Fan.

Young Girl Holding a Fan by Simon Maris – the painting used to be called Young Negro Girl. (Rijkmuseum)

Maris's painting is just one of 132 works of art at the museum where the word "Negro" has been removed from the title.

For example, one work by Margaretha van Raephorst that was described as depicting "a Negro servant" is now described as portraying "a young black servant."

Other examples include changing the term "Mohammedan" to "Muslim." 

But the museum is also now struggling with what to do about other terms that Gosselink describes as "more difficult."

"So, for example, the term 'Eskimo' ... most of the people the whites used to call 'Eskimo' prefer the term 'Inuit.' But, there's also a group that thinks differently."

Gosselink adds that in such cases the museum needs to talk directly with representatives from those groups.

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