At the Rijksmuseum, art and history take on new meaning for a broad-based, national (and international) audience. In all of its materials for public consumption – such as exhibitions, publications, its website, and its audio tours – the museum aims to use contemporary language without short-changing history in the process. Language is a living thing. Many terms that were acceptable and in common usage decades ago, are now outdated.
This phenomenon is also reflected in the descriptions of the Rijksmuseum’s collection contained in our digital registration system. A number of these involve the use of outdated language which, in some cases, is also perceived as offensive. Moreover, some descriptions reflect a Eurocentric perspective, one that describes history from a purely Western standpoint.
A special group, appointed in December 2015, has been tasked with critically assessing previously used terminology. The group will initially focus on terms referring to skin color and on some forms of ethnographic nomenclature. For example, we no longer use the words Negro, Hottentot, Bushman and Eskimo.
Each modification involves an individually customised solution. The group, whose members include representatives from various departments in the Rijksmuseum, regularly consults curators and information specialists. It also collaborates with other museums and seeks advice from interest groups.
In each case, we preserve all of the old titles and descriptions. This will enable future generations to consult these records and see how the descriptions of objects have changed over the course of time.
Throughout the years some objects in the collection of the Rijksmuseum have had different titles. For example, when a painting made by Simon Maris c. 1906 became part of the museum’s collection in 1922, it was not known that the artist himself had given this work a title. It carried the description ‘Indonesian type; Oriental girl sitting in an armchair’. In the 1970’s one of the museum’s curators gave the painting the new title ‘Negress’. In 2015 this title gave rise to a public debate on terminology used by museums. In the Rijksmuseum this led to the formation of a team to look into our use of terminology. This team proposed to change the title of the painting to ‘Young Woman with a Fan’. At the same time research was started to uncover the identity of the portrayed girl. Documents and photo’s in the Maris family archives revealed her name as ‘Isabella’. So In the end the painting could be reconnected with the title the artist originally had given it. Since February 2020 Isabella is on view with her ‘new title’ as part of the permanent exhibition in the Rijksmuseum (gallery 1.18). Every period has its own language, terms and titles.
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