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 Many terms that were acceptable and in common usage decades ago, are now outdated.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 A number of these involve the use of outdated language which, in some cases, is also perceived as offensive.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.
Some objects have had various titles in the past. For instance, there is a work by Simon Maris – dating from around 1906 – which the painter himself left untitled. It was first registered in the Rijksmuseum’s collection in 1922, at which time it was known as the ‘East-Indian Type’. In the 1970s, the staff gave the painting a new title, ‘The Little Negress’. That title was amended again in 2015. Now, the preferred title is: ‘Young Woman with a Fan’, with the former titles of ‘East-Indian Type’ and ‘The Little Negress’.
Every age has its own language, terms and titles.