Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.” Credit: Rijksmuseum

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.” Credit: Rijksmuseum

The question of how to manage the display of offensive art is often discussed, but what about offensive art labels? With the recently launched program “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology”, Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum has begun altering racially insensitive titles and descriptions of works in its collection. Where, for example, a painting by Simon Maris originally was titled “Young Negro-Girl”, the name has become changed to “Young Girl Holding a Fan”. For a museum with over 220,000 pieces in its collection, many of which (in one way or another) are connected to Holland’s colonial history, it is not a small undertaking. Further complicating the picture, in many cases it was museum curators, not the artists themselves, who assigned titles to pieces on display. For contemporary curators then, the project is a type of corrective — one meant to acknowledge Holland’s multicultural society and to make the museum space friendlier to a broader range of audiences. But while the intentions behind this update widely have been lauded, the decision is not without controversy, for it also might be seen as a way for the museum to attempt to whitewash the country’s — or the museum’s own — racist histories. The word “Hottentot”, for instance, can be seen as a fundamentally offensive term, (it was a name given by the Dutch to the Khoi people of South Africa and means “stutterer”), but the fact that Saartjie Baartman was marketed as a freak show attraction labeled the “Hottentot Venus” is critical to understanding the history of what happened to her, as well as to comprehending the social, political and economic conditions that enabled her exploitation. How might museums best respond to offensive material, without at the same time obfuscating the history of that same material? Is it historical revisionism? How might the museums maintain transparency without also reproducing or perpetuating the attitudes being critiqued? And how do art historical taxonomies themselves impact the perception of the works they are meant to catalog? Of note: Although many titles have been changed, the Rijksmuseum continues to categorize art works according to general subject areas such as “African negroes”.