Netherlands: Rijksmuseum’s problem with words

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Credit: Shitterstock / Littleaom

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Credit: Shutterstock / Littleaom

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is in the process of removing terms visitors may find offensive, including “negro”, “dwarf” and “Indian”, from digitised titles and descriptions of around 220,000 pieces of artwork, replacing them with less racially-charged terminology.

The titles of 8,000 pieces of art on display were updated in time for the museum’s reopening in 2013 after a decade-long renovation, and the museum has now begun work to remove “offensive” language from the museum’s digitised collections.

This includes a 1900 painting by Dutch artist Simon Maris originally called “Young Negro-Girl” which will now be called “Young Girl Holding a Fan”.

The head of the Rijksmuseum Martine Gosselink, who initiated the project said: “The point is not to use names given by whites to others.”

“We Dutch are called kaas kops, 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’,” she added: “And that’s exactly the same as what’s happening here.”

Other words to be removed from the collections include Mohammedan, an old word for Muslim; and Hottentot, a name given to Dutch people by the Khoi people of South Africa, meaning stutterer.

In the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, which tackles taboos and the breaking down of social barriers, Kunle Olulode discusses the problems with editing out racist language from books and films. “Should we not accept that films and TV programmes set in the past will include some stereotypical images of minorities?”, he writes. However uncomfortable these words may seem, they should not be censored as they provide vital insights into history.